Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

I was first given the book Winter’s Tale by a woman who worked with me in a law firm,  several years ago. She was an odd woman, claiming to be psychic and in touch with – in her own words – “the universal forces.”

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She was a practicing Wiccan, though it turns out she was in love with my then-boss and was using her Wiccan powers to try to destroy his marriage so she could have him. I digress slightly, but it was she who introduced me to this wonderful and mystical novel that encompasses magical realism, fantasy, history, metaphysics, and time travel, so I associate her with this novel. I suppose we all have that strange individual who has crossed our paths and made an unusual impression, whether good or bad.

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I love magical realism in books, though in my own humble opinion the Latin American writers do it best. Cases in point: Rudolfo Anaya, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, and pretty much every book written by the late, great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom I blogged about twice previously. But Mark Helprin brings snowy, turn-of-the-century New York City in a slightly alternate universe, into this magically realistic universe so beautifully. The endless clashes of good and evil, love and hate, life and death, and the eternity beyond it all, are described in such a way that you are transported there.

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The love story between Peter Lake, an Irish immigrant who is later granted supernatural powers, and Beverly Penn, the heiress dying of consumption, is stronger than death, stronger than time, and it’s that love story that colors the entire book.

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When I recently finished rereading this book, I was filled with joy and sadness; that such a world exists and that the book containing it had to come to an end. One of the lines that touched my heart and hit me so strongly in the heart was this one:  “Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is shatter time and bring back the dead.” For anyone who has ever loved and lost, whether it be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a grandparent, or a lover, this line is particularly poignant. We all want to shatter time and bring these people back…….whether they have actually passed on from this world or whether it is the love between us that died.

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Peter Lake is on the run from the unusual creature Pearly Soames – devil? demon? – with whom he has previously associated and who now wants to kill him. A magical white horse called Athansor has appeared to whisk him to safety, which he finds in a hidden garret in Grand Central Station. He is able to safely stable the horse, rest, and being hungry from his recent adventures, proceeds to cook himself a delicious meal of seafood stew.

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With his strength renewed, he realized that he was ravenously hungry, and proceeded to cook an excellent bouillabaisse culled from cans of varied fish, tomatoes, wine, oil and an enormous bottle of Saratoga spring water.

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I have yet to meet a combination of fish and tomatoes I don’t love. Bouillabaisse was something I’d yet to try, though, so today, a cold, windy day heralding the beginning of winter, seemed the appropriate time to recreate Peter Lake’s homemade meal.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on methods from Emeril Lagasse and the marvelous The Ultimate Book of Fish & Shellfish by Kate Whiteman, which has a place of honor among my cookbooks. There are many ideas about what constitutes proper bouillabaisse, but the overall consensus is that you can essentially use whichever fish and shellfish you’d like, and make the classic rouille to garnish the bread eaten with this dish.

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INGREDIENTS
1 small roasted red pepper, peeled and deseeded
2 chunks of baguette, torn into pieces
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

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1 egg yolk
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
7 cloves of garlic, minced (4 for the bouillabaisse, 3 for the rouille)
4 cups fish stock
1/2 cup Pernod
1/2 cup clam juice
2 leeks, white part only, washed and cut into rings
Handful of chopped parsley
1 fennel bulb

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Zest and juice of one orange
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, whole
Pinch of saffron threads

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4 bay leaves
8 ripe beefsteak or Campari tomatoes
4 small red potatoes, cubed
1 lb frozen salmon, cut into large chunks
1 lb. frozen cod, cut into large chunks
2 cups frozen shrimp, deveined and peeled but with tails attached
2 cups frozen clams in their shells
Remainder of the baguette, cut into thick slices

METHOD
For the rouille:
Combine the torn-up 2 baguette pieces, the roasted red pepper, 3 of the peeled garlic cloves, the Dijon mustard, the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the salt and pepper in a food processor. Mix until smooth, then slowly add the olive oil.

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Mix again until you have a smooth, thick emulsion. Set aside.

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For the bouillabaisse:
Saute the onion, celery and garlic in a bit of olive oil. Add the bay leaves and peppercorns. Add the leeks and the fennel, and saute for another 5 minutes, or until soft.

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Grate in the orange zest here, and then squeeze in the juice to the broth.

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Add 3 cups of the seafood stock. Stir to mix and simmer another 5 minutes. Then add the diced tomatoes.

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Add the Pernod, the tomato bouillon cube, the saffron, and the remainder of the fish stock. Allow to cook another 10-15 minutes, so the flavors mingle. You’ll be able to smell the saline of the stock and the anise of the liqueur.

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Once your broth has simmered 15 minutes, add a half-cup of clam juice and blend to a thick, smooth consistency with a stick blender. Toss in the parsley.

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Heat the oven broiler at this point. You’ll know why in a moment. Add the potatoes to the broth. Cook another 15 minutes, or until they soften. Add in your fish at this stage, but stagger based on thickness and delicacy. The idea is to have all the fish cooked perfectly. Add the cod and the salmon chunks first and cook for 6 minutes.

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Toss in the clams and enjoy that clatter of shells in the soup pot. Cook another 6 minutes, until the clams open up. Discard any that don’t open, unless you enjoy pain. Add the shrimp and cook until they turn pink.

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While the fish is cooking, toast the baguette slices under the broiler for 1 minute.  Remove, and spread with the rouille sauce.

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In a bowl, place 3 chunks of rouille-smeared bread. Ladle over some of the fish and the heavenly-scented broth. Drizzle over a bit of the rouille sauce.

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This is truly heaven in a bowl for seafood lovers. Rich, delicate and with a mix of green and salty, savory flavors that hit your tongue like a golden kiss. Soooooooooo good, and perfect for a chilly winter’s day.

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Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Updated on Friday, June 8, 2018:
I woke up to the devastating news that Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. I never met him, but he was one of my biggest cooking influences and an inspiration for me to go out on a limb and try new recipes and methods of cooking. I feel so sad that this man of passion and foul language and angelic culinary skills and the face of a ruggedly handsome adventurer felt that he couldn’t bear the world any longer. RIP, beautiful man. I hope you find the peace that eluded you in life.  The post below was my homage to him and his life-changing (for me, anyway) book Kitchen Confidential, which I blogged a little over a year ago.

Original posting: May 2017: Oh, that damn Monday fish. Anthony Bourdain, to whom I refer affectionately as “my future ex-husband,” is never going to live that down. I didn’t eat a Monday fish special at a restaurant for  five years after reading Kitchen Confidential. Of course, in his updated version of that classic foodie memoir, he recants in his inimitable style by saying “eat the fucking fish on Monday, already!”

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Bourdain is as snarky and smart-assy as they come. God, I love him. His attitude of irreverence, particularly within an industry that traditionally holds male chefs on very high pedestals, is refreshing. Though he is somewhat of a hypocrite in how he has previously mocked celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray whilst simultaneously pursuing his own brand of foul-mouthed celebrity, I can’t help but like the guy. He’s funnier than hell, can cook like an angel, curse like a devil, drink like a sailor, and is one of those men that just get more handsome and sexy with age. He’s welcome to eat crackers in bed with me anytime.

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What sets him apart is that he doesn’t take himself seriously, either in his writing or his cooking. He’s a good chef and he knows it, but he regularly mocks himself, and I like that in a person. We none of us should take ourselves so seriously in life, because we are all going to screw up eventually. I also like that he doesn’t have any arrogance toward his staff and he gives credit where credit is due – to the hardworking cooks, sous-chefs, servers, bakers, prep cooks, dishwashers and all the unseen migrant men and women behind the scenes who make the food.

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Without these workers, restaurants would shut down. They are the true backbone of the service industry, and I say this having worked for several years in the restaurant business myself; as a table busser, a hostess, a waitress, and a cashier at a well-known Mexican restaurant; and as a cocktail waitress at a couple of dive bars while in college.

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It was fun, but physically demanding and mentally exhausting. I got yelled at by customers and dropped numerous glasses of water working in the restaurant business; I got my butt pinched so often as a cocktail waitress that I think it’s permanently bruised; and for years after I left the Mexican restaurant I could not look at a bowl of salsa and basket of tortilla chips without gagging. I respect the hell out of people in the service industry, and Bourdain respects them, too.

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Well, my dear future ex-husband, I am going off the rails a little bit and making this dish in your honor ON A MONDAY! I’m taking you on, baby, and making that yellowfin tuna in a braised fennel, confit tomato, and saffron sauce. Except, with my usual recipe edits. This is the method that worked for me, based on this New York Times tasty recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
For the tomato confit:
1 pint cherry tomatoes
8 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
3 tablespoons fresh thyme and parsley
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

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For the tuna:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, cut in thin slices
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 small tuna steaks, 5 oz. each
Zest and juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup of seafood stock
1/ 2 teaspoon saffron threads

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cut a small slit across the bottom of each cherry tomato. Put the tomatoes and unpeeled garlic cloves in the boiling water for 30 seconds.

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Drain in ice-cold water to blanch, then remove the peels from each tomato. This will probably take a good 20 minutes.

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Put the tomatoes and garlic in a baking pan, submerge in olive oil, add the dried and fresh herbs, sea salt, and pepper. Cover in foil and bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool thoroughly, peel the garlic cloves and mash, mix with the tomatoes, then store in a jar.

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In a small pan, heat the seafood stock to just boiling. Add the saffron threads, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir together, and let simmer.

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Heat a cast-iron stovetop grill to high. Salt and pepper the tuna steaks, oil them lightly on both sides, and sear them each for 30 seconds per side.

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Place the tuna steaks on top of the shallot, garlic and fennel. Grate over the lemon zest.

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Pour over the seafood stock, check for taste and seasoning, cover and cook on low for another 5-7 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Don’t let it overcook!

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Plate and garnish with the gorgeously red tomato confit, and maybe some black rice. It makes a stunning presentation on a plate, and better  yet, tastes delicious. Anthony, I think I did you proud!

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Thanks to KRB for the photography.

The title was the hook for me with this book, not to mention the book cover. Yes, in this case, I did indeed judge the book by its cover, and I was pleasantly surprised. Though nominally a book for young adults, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a wonderful read, and I found the narrator, 17-year-old Jacob who’s at a crossroads in his life, to be funny and mature.

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One of the great joys of reading this book was seeing the eerie and unusual pictures that illustrate it. These photos are real, but show people doing the most odd things and often, give the impression of the supernatural. Yet they go so perfectly with the storyline. I normally don’t like books with pictures, other than cookbooks. But this book would not be what it is without the strange, sometimes frightening photographs that add such personality to it. It’s a perfect Halloween read!

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The book’s premise is a bit peculiar, pardon the pun. Jacob is an otherwise normal teenager, closer to his grandfather Abe than his parents, and one night finds his grandfather dying, murdered by some ghastly creature. Abe passes along some strange knowledge to Jacob, which prompts a trip to Wales to find someone named Miss Peregrine, a woman who took in Jacob’s grandfather when he was young, during World War II. What Jacob finds on the island where Miss Peregrine has a home for peculiar children is indeed odd, but funny, sad, and amazing at the same time. The peculiar children are just that, all blessed with odd talents or powers that make them “peculiar.” One is invisible, one can make inanimate objects come to life, one can levitate at will, one can set things afire with her hands, and one very peculiar child has a mouth on the back of her neck through which she eats. As Jacob arrives at Miss Peregrine’s house just in time for the evening meal, he gets to witness this odd eating habit, and the veritable feast of fresh fish and seafood, including salmon, firsthand.

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Kids with kitchen duty appeared bearing trays of food, all covered with gleaming silver tops…….sparking wild speculation about what might be for dinner. “Otters Wellington!” one boy cried. “Salted kitten and shrew’s liver!” another said, to which the younger children responded with gagging sounds. But when the covers were finally lifted, a feast of kingly proportions was revealed: a roasted goose, its flesh a perfect golden brown, a whole salmon and a whole cod, each outfitted with lemons and fresh dill and pats of melting butter………platters of roasted vegetables……….”

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So I decided to give salmon a whirl. It’s the one thing that I have always screwed up in cooking, but this method from the blog Damn Delicious looked delicious, and seemed simple enough. As I was cooking in honor of my sister Krista’s birthday and having her, my grandmother Leandra, my aunt Eva and one of my best friends Tina over for lunch, and the Birthday Queen requested salmon (along with a few other goodies), I combined this family celebration with today’s blog post and it’s one of my favorites.

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This is the cooking method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
8 salmon fillets, boneless and skinless
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1 cup pecans
1/2 cup of shaved Parmesan cheese
Handful of fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 tablespoon cornstarch

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 275F.

In a food processor, combine the Panko, the pecans, the parsley, and the Parmesan, until everything breaks down and you have a rough, nubbly texture. Like this.

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Rub a generous amount of butter on each side of each salmon fillet.2016-10-23-20-23-00_resized

Dredge each salmon fillet in the Panko/pecan/parsley/Parmesan mixture, again on both sides, pressing the coating in well with your hands. Heat a large grill pan over medium high heat. Liberally spray the grill pan with olive oil spray. Sear 2 salmon fillets at a time for 1 minute per side. Work in batches so the salmon doesn’t get greasy.

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Lay the nut-crusted salmon fillets on a foil-covered cookie tray. Bake for 6-7 minutes and check for doneness. The idea here is that the fish will continue baking and you DO NOT want overcooked, dry salmon. It’s better to have undercooked salmon than overcooked. And if by some unhappy accident you do overcook it, just order a pizza.

While the salmon is baking, make the glaze. It’s a quasi-teriyaki-type sauce and though a bit sweet for my tastes, actually went deliciously well with the nut-crusted salmon. I think the contrast of flavors did it.

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In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the honey, soy sauce, garlic, lemon juice and cornstarch. Whisk together and bring to a boil. Once bubbling, lower the heat and let the sauce reduce and thicken. Keep an eye on it so the sugar in the honey doesn’t burn. Taste and adjust flavors as needed. I have more of a savory tooth so I added more lemon and salt but go by your own palate.

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Decant the sauce and serve with the salmon and whatever side dishes you choose. I made the salmon and glaze with creamy, buttery mashed potatoes, and roasted butternut squash with sage, pecans and blue cheese.

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And of course, it wouldn’t be a birthday celebration without a chocolate birthday cake with chocolate ganache icing. A feast fit for a birthday queen! Happy birthday to my dear sister, Krista! You bug the hell out of me most of the time, but I can’t imagine life without you. I love you!

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The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

The premise of this novel, The Little Paris Bookshop, is that books are medicine for the heart and the soul. I love that idea and believe it’s true.

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Books have been my constant companion since childhood, my comfort when sad, and my solace when all hope seemed lost. I remember my grandmother, Nana Jean, reading to me when I was perhaps three or four years old, and she skipped a few sentences and I immediately told her “Nana, that’s not how it goes!” My mother, in the rare instances that I was disciplined for being bad, had no other alternative but to ground me from reading. I didn’t care about anything else, just my books. And how little has changed.

(Yup, that’s me, with a book and our dog, Brownie……and horrible slippers!)221283_10150177679678370_742137_o

The main character, Jean Perdu, has spent years of his life mourning the loss of his married lover, Manon, who wrote him a letter when she left him. He only opens it 20 years later, and its contents spur him into an adventure along the country waterways of France in the large houseboat that is also his book apothecary. It’s a beautiful book that pays homage to grief and letting go of a love long since gone, another theme that has been strong in my life. I spent years loving a man who wasn’t able to love me back in the way that I needed, and though it was the hardest thing I ever did, letting him go and moving forward with my life has reaped many rewards and joys. This book gives us hope that we can still love someone, and yet be able to move on and find new life, new love and new happiness. Reading this book was indeed like medicine for my soul, and reminded me that we can be healed spiritually by the simple joys like delicious food and wonderful books.

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The impetus for Jean’s opening of the letter is when he meets Catherine, a similarly grieving woman, for whom he develops a deep friendship that becomes love. They get to know one another while cooking a simple, yet lovely meal of fish poached in cream and white wine, served with new potatoes roasted in garlic and rosemary, pears and cheese, and some beautiful French wine, a combination so quintessentially French that I was inspired.

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“Catherine had inspected his red mullets, the fresh herbs and the cream from broad-beamed Normandy cows, then held up her small new potatoes and cheese, and gestured to the fragrant pears and to the wine. ‘Can we do something with this lot?’ ‘Yes. But one after the other, not together,’ he said…………Soon the windowpanes had misted up; the gas flames were hissing under the pots and pans; the white wine, shallot and cream sauce was simmering; and in a heavy pan the olive oil was browning potatoes sprinkled with rosemary and salt.”

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Red mullet is nearly impossible to find in landlocked New Mexico, so my friendly fishmonger Ryan at Nantucket Shoals recommended tilapia. So I did. This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe from Ben O’Donogue of the BBC Saturday Kitchen, with some tasty little twists of my own.

INGREDIENTS

1 finely diced shallot
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Drizzle of olive oil (drizzle being the technical term)
6-7 tilapia fillets
1 cup of good, drinkable white wine. I used Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc.
1 cup of heavy cream
3-4 fresh bay leaves
About a handful of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley – my flavoring twist
Sea salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon of capers – another added twist
Finely chopped almonds
6-7 new or little red potatoes, sliced thinly
1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
4-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (I got to bust out the mezzaluna for this one!)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely minced

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METHOD

In a large cast-iron or other metal pan, add the drizzle of olive oil and saute the shallots, adding a sprinkle of sea salt to release their moisture and keep them from burning. Saute for about five minutes, until translucent, then add the white wine and the heavy cream. Season with salt and pepper, then add the parsley and bay leaves.

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Stir to mix and let come to a gentle simmer, but keep stirring it so it doesn’t curdle. Lower in the tilapia fillets and cook for about five-10 minutes, or until the fish turns opaque.  You want to make certain the liquid completely covers the fish fillet. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t overcook or undercook. Because, you know, who wants raw fish? This ain’t a sushi blog!

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In a large bowl, add the remaining olive oil, the potato slices, the minced garlic, the rosemary bits, and some sea salt. Mix together with your hands so that everything is nicely coated and harmoniously glistening with oil. Get out a skillet and toss the rosemary-garlic-flecked potatoes into it. Cook over medium-low heat, letting the potatoes dry out and brown, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes darken and crisp, and you can smell the wonderful, starchy scent mingling with the garlic and rosemary. It’s a perfume I would dab behind my ears if I could.

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Transfer the tilapia fillets to a plate with the potatoes, turn up the heat under the pan with the cream and wine, and bring it to a boil. Add a large tablespoon of capers to the liquid. Keep stirring it so that it reduces and thickens into a luscious, unctuously thick sauce. Like this!

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Turn off the heat, give a good last stir, and pour the sauce over the fish and spuds. Garnish with the almonds, which give wonderful crunch and look beautiful! Eat with the sounds of La Vie en Rose running through your imagination, or better yet, imagining you’re on board Jean Perdu’s floating bookshop. Heaven!

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“Books were my friends,” said Catherine……”I think I learned all my feelings from books. In them, I loved and laughed and found out more than in my whole nonreading life.”