Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

So this was a totally bizarre, engrossing and freaky ride of a book. I haven’t read anything in quite awhile that literally hooked me from the first sentence and didn’t let go. I actually checked it out at the library and got three overdue notices because I wanted to read it slowly and savor it, and then read it over again. In fact, I ended up buying it for myself as a Christmas gift and thus far have read it a total of four times. So yes, you could say I love this book!

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Bardugo is an intense writer and I love her unique style with words. Visceral, irreverent yet serious, with occasional blasts of sick humor and an absolutely fascinating murder mystery, mixed with black magic, frat boy hijinks and one of the more uniquely loveable heroines in fiction and a wonderful world of magic set against an Ivy League university setting………such a bizarre premise that of course it works.

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Alex Stern has been given a second chance, both at life having survived a gruesome multiple murder and in academia having been chosen to attend Yale on a free ride. It turns out that her lifelong ability to see the spirits of the dead – Grays, as she calls them – is the very reason she is chosen to attend this legendary Ivy League college. She is picked to oversee the magic of the eight houses at Yale, to act as a guardian against any of the black magic being noticed or misused by these houses, and in her role as “Dante,” she is part of Lethe House, the eponymous ninth house. She acts as a type of apprentice to “Virgil,” who is Daniel Arlington when he’s at home, or Darlington, as he is more familiarly known.

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When Darlington mysteriously disappears during a magic ritual and when Alex discovers the murder of a town girl and finds connections with four of the eight magical houses, she sets out on a quest to find the murderer and becomes embroiled not just in a police procedural mystery but the real, nasty, dirty reality of the type of magic being practiced at Yale. Some of the houses cast spells of manipulation and perception, some raise the dead, some work with plants to create magical potions,  some can tell the future. Alex has taken to heart Darlington’s assessment that they are “shepherds,” meant to oversee and contain the magic and to protect innocent bystanders.

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I personally love a book that does not explain everything from the get-go and that basically sets up this alternate universe and expects you to follow along and learn as you go. That’s what Bardugo does in this book. She doesn’t stop to explain how this house came into being, why their magic works, why Alex can see Grays and how Alex came to end up at Yale after a youth filled with petty drug use, stealing and living with drug dealers. Rather, you find out in subtle flashbacks and that old “suspension of disbelief.” If you can let go and follow Bardugo into the world of magical fraternities, spirits of the dead, invisible hounds that protect sacred spaces, and ghosts who can possess the living, you will so not be disappointed.

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Darlington is watched over in his position of Virgil by “Oculus,” his cook/housekeeper/research assistant who also acts as a protector and source of information about the other houses….or as her real name goes, Dawes. She and Alex initially dislike each other on site and probably on principle, but they are united in their love for Darlington and desire to get him back, and their need to understand the supernatural. Early in the book, Virgil and Dante – Darlington and Alex – return to Darlington’s private house where Oculus – Dawes – has prepared them a meal to fortify them after all the magical goings-on of the evening, to the delight of Darlington.

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Dawes slid her headphones down to her neck “We have smoked salmon and egg and dill sandwiches.” “Dare I ask?” “And avgolemono.” “I’d say you’re an angel, but you’re so much more interesting.” Dawes clucked her tongue. “It’s not really a fall soup.” “It’s barely fall and there’s nothing more fortifying.”

I’d never made avgolemono soup before, that delicious, delicate yet filling Greek soup of chicken, rice and lemon made creamy with a tempered mix of eggs gently whipped into the hot soup, but I figured it was time to give it a whirl. I was very happy and honored to be given the method from Jessica, one of my favorite Instagram posters and food bloggers, who can be found on IG at @jesswhoamamma. You won’t be disappointed in her feed. Anyway, this is her method, which she got from her beloved yia-yia (grandmother) and which I am proud to share with you now.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-lb organic chicken
1 cup white rice (I used Basmati)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 large lemon
1 cup ice-cold water
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Put the chicken into a large stockpot filled with about a gallon of water. Boil for 1-2 hours, skimming fat and impurities from the surface. Once cooked, remove chicken from liquid and let cool.

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Drain the stock into a clean pot and put on to a low boil, and add the rice and the tablespoon of butter. Let cook, and once the rice is tender, remove from the heat and get on with the avgolemono.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites.

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Add juice of half the lemon and a tablespoon of ice-cold water to the egg whites, and whisk until frothy and pale.

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Whisk the egg yolks together, then add to the egg white mixture and whisk again until well combined.

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One spoonful at a time, add some hot broth to the egg mixture and whisk madly. This is called tempering the eggs, and what it does is slowly brings them to soup temperature and makes them creamy. If you put the eggs directly into the hot soup, they would cook and become scrambled eggs, and you DO NOT want that.

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After about 6 spoonfuls of hot stock being slowly added and whisked into the egg mixture, you can now pour the entire bowlful of egg mixture into the hot soup.

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Shred the chicken, remove the skin, gristle, and bones, and add the meat to the soup. Simmer very gently on low until everything is creamy and combined. Adjust seasoning and add more salt, pepper or lemon to your taste.

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Heaven! Light, rich, delicate yet substantial, with that effervescent tang of lemon, this soup is actually perfect year-round and not just in the fall. Sorry, Dawes! Darlington was right!

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Food in Films – Star Wars: A New Hope

It’s the end of an era. Or at least, the official end of the Star Wars films. I haven’t actually seen the last film, but I have an idea of how it ends. Don’t spoil it for me in the comments! That being said, part of what I did to prepare for this end game was to watch the original trilogy over the weekend. I’d forgotten I had it and it was such a great trip down memory lane. I still remember seeing Star Wars: A New Hope for the very first time as a kid at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe. I was blown away, as I think every impressionable kid and teenager was at the time.

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It’s definitely a cultural icon, if you think about it. How many movie lines can you quote? I can probably quote all three of the original trilogy, so don’t watch with me if that irritates you. How many references to the film are part of our society? Endless references, I imagine, my favorite being when Ross fantasizes about Rachel in a Princess Leia costume on Friends. Can you imagine a world without Darth Vader’s ominous breathing, Luke Skywalker’s youthful naivete, Princess Leia’s iconic cinnamon-bun hairdo, Chewbacca’s growly yells, Han Solo’s swaggering arrogance, C3P0’s pedantic words, and of course, the great Obi-Wan Kenobi? I certainly can’t.

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Obi-Wan might be my favorite character in all the Star Wars films, besides R2-D2. There is just something about the classic archetype of the mentor figure that draws me. Characters like Gandalf the Grey, Professor Albus Dumbledore, Merlin the Wizard, and of course Obi-Wan, are so fascinating. The magician/wizard/mentor who guides the young knight in his quest to find the treasure is a classic trope in every culture.

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Having studied the Tarot for many years now, I also found wonderful parallels between Obi-Wan and the figure of the Magician in the Major Arcana. The Magician is symbolic of both earth and heaven, or the joining of the esoteric with the widely known, the shadow with the light. If Star Wars were a deck of Tarot cards, Obi-Wan would be the perfect embodiment of the Magician, being completely at one with The Force and at the same time, tied strongly to his physical life, demonstrated by the fact that he chooses to go into hiding until such time as he can play a role in the events of Luke’s life. I suppose the combination of the earthly and the divine attract me because, if you think about it, we as humans are all that combination of faulty humanity constantly struggling toward divine oneness with the Universe.

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Also, he has what, IMHO, is one of the most rad lines in the film series:

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The symbolism is also pretty interesting, too. Light versus dark, black versus white, The Force versus The Dark Side, the son overtaking the father……you see a lot of traditional Judeo-Christian imagery in the trilogy. If you want to stretch the analogy even further, you could argue that Obi-Wan, Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker represent the Holy Trinity – Darth is the Father, Luke is the Son, and Obi-Wan is the Holy Spirit. There’s the whole story arc of rebirth and redemption, which is about as symbolic as you can get.

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I thought about what kind of food might be both fun and tasty to recreate for this latest Food in Films post. I considered blue Banta milkshakes; frog legs from the scene where Jabba the Hutt eats the frogs in the third film; Cornish game hens to stand in for the cute little Porg creatures; or even some kind of floaty fruit like what Anakin manipulates to try and impress Padmé in the Clone film, but being the dork that I am and loving a good food pun, I give you……..wait for it…………Obi-Wan Cannoli. You’re welcome.

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INGREDIENTS
6 cannoli shells
1 cup finely diced prosciutto or other ham
1 cup Ricotta cheese
Zest of one large lemon
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
Fresh mint and basil
1/2 cup capers, finely chopped

METHOD
Mix the finely chopped prosciutto with the Ricotta cheese until well combined.

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Add in the lemon zest and some sea salt, taste for seasoning and mix.

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Add in the Parmesan cheese and the mint and basil, and taste again. Adjust the seasoning as needed.

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Spoon the cheese mixture into a large plastic bag and refrigerate for an hour.

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Assemble your cannoli on a large platter.

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Snip a small hole in one corner of the plastic bag and squeeze the cheese filling into each end of each cannoli shell until each is filled, then garnish the ends with the chopped capers. Serve with marinara sauce for dipping and some good red wine, and know that The Force will be with you…….always.

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The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs

I thought it would be fun to blog about books I loved as a kid that also scared the crap out of me. I clean out books on a fairly regular basis because I buy so many of them, and I donate many to Little Free Libraries around my city. So while cleaning out my books the other day, I came across a stack of children’s and young adult books I’d kept for years and had some pleasant nostalgia when I saw The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs. It features the character Johnny Dixon, a young boy who lives with his grandparents in Duston Heights, Massachusetts, in the 1950s. He’s a bookworm, kind of nerdy, loves to read and loves radio drama, and loves chocolate. Well, we can all relate to that!

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Johnny is befriended by Professor Roderick Childermass, who is a hilarious character. He reenacts famous sea battles with plastic ships in his bathroom, is a professor of history who is extremely opinionated, plays chess like a wizard, and makes a mean chocolate cake. Naturally, he and Johnny become pals, which is fortunate because when Johnny discovers a mysterious book and a blue figurine in the cellar of his church that once belonged to the evil priest Father Remigius Baart, the curse comes back to haunt Johnny. A blue ushabti figurine – ushabti are small figures found in ancient Egyptian tombs with mummies usually representing servants expected to do certain agricultural labors required of the deceased in the land of the dead – contains the actual curse and when Johnny takes both the book and the figurine, all hell breaks loose.

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An example of ushabti figurines.

My edition also features the unique artwork of Edward Gorey, who I absolutely adore! Anyway, this book was a wonderful nostalgic trip down memory lane for me, taking me back to the days when I would sneak books under the covers and read by flashlight after my mom and stepdad had gone to bed and I was supposed to be asleep. I think I always particularly loved the friendship between Johnny and Professor Childermass, because I always was in search of an adult who would treat me as a peer and not a a kid, and these two definitely bond as friends over chess and chocolate. This is one of my favorite passages:

Johnny excused himself and went across the street. He had a great time that evening. The professor was a crafty and merciless chess player. He was every bit as good as Johnny was, and maybe even a bit better. As for the cake….well, Johnny had theories about chocolate cake. He felt that the cake part of the cake was just an interruption between the layers of frosting. As it turned out, the professor’s opinions about cake were similar to Johnny’s. The cake he served had three or four thin layers and the rest was a huge amount of good, dark, thick, fudgy frosting. And he served second helpings, too.

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In honor my sister’s birthday, I tried my hand at a four-tier, old-fashioned chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, with focus on the ganache frosting. I decorated it for Halloween, in honor of this high holy season of horror!

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INGREDIENTS FOR THE GANACHE FROSTING
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups dark chocolate chips, 70% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon Amaretto

METHOD
Make your cake tiers with whatever chocolate cake recipe you have to hand. Make sure they are completely cool before frosting them.

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In a metal saucepan, heat the heavy cream until small bubbles just start to form around the sides and you see steam rising. Don’t overheat the cream or it will curdle. Turn off the heat immediately.

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Pour in the chocolate chips and make sure they are covered by the hot cream. Add the almond extract, the vanilla extract and the Amaretto. Cover and let sit for 15 minutes.

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Remove the lid, and whisk the mixture for 5 minutes. You’ll see the chocolate ganache start to amalgamate as you continue to stir, thickening into a luscious frosting.

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One layer at a time, frost the top of each cake layer and stack them on a cake stand, until you have this magnificent layer cake. Proceed to frost the cake top and sides.

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Decorate however you want. I tried to find little blue mummies but could not, so I just went full on Halloween instead. The result? Cute, kitschy, and ultimately delicious!

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Just look at those fudgy layers! Johnny Dixon would be proud!

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The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I’m a bore on the topic of books vs. films, as I’ve been told many times, and I’d have to agree. Don’t get me started on whether the film version is better than the book, because I will wax poetic for a good hour or two about the merits of the book and how the book is ALWAYS better than the film. However, I must come clean and shamefacedly admit that I have never in my life read Mario Puzo’s masterpiece The Godfather. Until now, that is.

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I’ve seen the film, of course. Like 30 times. Possibly more. I own the trilogy, for God’s sake. I can quote the movie nearly line-by-line (another reason not to watch movies with me because I will irritate the shit out of you by doing that) and I will gladly debate the merits of that much-maligned film The Godfather III, because I personally think it has many hidden gems within it. Just try to ignore Sofia Coppola’s performance and give her a break…..she was young and there are worse actresses in the world.

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Unless you live under a rock, you know the storyline. The Corleone family patriarch, Vito, runs a crime syndicate in 1950s New York. He has three sons, Santino (Sonny), Frederico (Fredo), and Michael, and a daughter, Constanza (Connie.) All are very different, and Sonny is expected to take over the family business, but when he is executed Mafia-style and when Vito Corleone has an attempt made on his life, Michael takes over, becomes the Don and is far more cold and ruthless than his father ever could be.

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I was surprised at how removed the narration of the book was, though. It’s told from the third-person, but even from that remove, it is a very cold and clinically written book of a passionate family. The dichotomy was odd, though it worked extremely well because when you read the scenes of violence, murder, etc., the emotional remove makes them much more powerful. I was also surprised at how Michael’s Sicilian wife, Apolonia, was portrayed. In the film, she has very much a personality, flirtatious and passionate and quite funny, actually. In the book, she really isn’t given much character at all, beyond being this gorgeous, sexual creature that Michael falls passionately in love with and must possess, until she is, of course, killed in the car explosion meant for him.’

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In terms of food, I had initially planned to recreate the scene where Clemenza teaches Michael to make  homemade ragú sauce when Michael is in hiding before killing Sollozzo and McCluskey, frying the garlic, etc. It’s a classic food scene and I love nothing more than making tomato sauces because it’s so relaxing. But I then I read the scene where a pregnant Connie cooks a meal of veal with peppers for her dickwad husband Carlo, and when he tells her to fuck off, she loses her temper, smashes the dishes on the table, and he proceeds to beat the living hell out of her.

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“I’m not hungry yet,” he said, still reading the racing form. “It’s on the table,” Connie said stubbornly. “Stick it up your ass,” Carlo said. He drank off the rest of the whiskey in the water glass, tilted the bottle to fill it again. He paid no more attention to her. Connie went into the kitchen, picked up the plates filled with food and smashed them……..the loud crashes brought Carlo in from the bedroom. He looked at the greasy veal and peppers splattered all over the kitchen walls and his finicky neatness was outraged. “You filthy guinea spoiled brat……clean that up right now or I’ll kick the shit out of you.” And he does, using a belt and his fists.

Pretty awful, both in the book and the film clip above, but it did start me thinking about veal. I had never made veal saltimbocca and this seemed like an excellent way to honor the Corleone family. This method comes from the legendary Anna del Conte’s book Gastronomy of Italy, which in my opinion, is like the Bible of contemporary Italian cooking. Her method does involve making the veal into little rolls, or involtini, so my friend Luca Marchiori says these should be called vitello involtino.

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INGREDIENTS
10 thin veal veal cutlets
10 slices prosciutto
10 fresh sage leaves
1/2 cup flour, for dusting the veal
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup white wine

METHOD
Lay out the veal cutlets on a flat surface.

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Place a strip of prosciutto and one sage leave atop each piece of meat.

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Roll up each veal cutlet and secure  with a toothpick to hold its shape.

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Mix salt and pepper into the flour, and dredge each veal roll in the seasoned flour.

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In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil and melt the butter in it, and when hot and bubbly, add in five of the veal rolls, browning on each side. I estimate it was roughly 5 minute per side. Don’t crowd the frying pan because they won’t brown and your lovely $25.00 veal cutlets will have gone to waste. I’m too cheap to want that.

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Let cool and fry the other five rolls.

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Remove the last rolls from the still-hot pan, and pour in the white wine, whisking and letting it bubble until it thickens into a lovely, syrupy reduction sauce, about 10 minutes. Pour over the veal rolls. The smell is amazing!

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Et voila! Veal saltimbocca, or as my friend Luca Marchiori suggested, vitelli involtini since they are rolled. Whatever. They are absolutely, mouth-wateringly delicious!

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Serve with some lovely, buttery polenta and roasted red bell peppers….hence, veal and peppers! Just don’t throw the food across the room a la Connie Corleone.

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Food in Films – Amélie

I decided to do a little something different for this blog post. Many people have suggested different recipes or dishes to me that they saw in a film version of a movie, and I loved the idea but wanted to stick with my original concept of creating food either directly mentioned in a book or inspired by a book. However, my dear friend Jade gave me some delicious fresh plums from her tree, and I happened to reorganize my DVD collection over the weekend and came across one of my most favorite films of all time, Amélie. Or as it is titled in French, “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain.”

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I love love love this movie beyond most any other film I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying a lot because I love films as much as I love books. Set in the beautiful Montmartre area of Paris, Amelie is a lovely young lady who has lived very much in her own little world since childhood, a world that started out with  teddy bear-shaped clouds, imaginary friends, and that childhood egomania where you believe that your actions affect things like world wars, sports outcomes, natural disasters, etc. This strange world was created as a result of being raised as an only child by two very neurotic parents, and this has essentially made her, even as an adult, stay enclosed and cocooned in this magical, if lonely, life she’s invented for herself.

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A chance discovery of a child’s treasure hidden for years in her apartment that she is successfully able to return to its owner causes a chain reaction of events, both in the lives of those around her as well as herself. She starts doing small deeds of goodwill for other people but in some amazingly unusual ways, like taking a blind man through a visual tour of Montmartre, romantically connecting two regulars at the cafe where she is a waitress, putting together “fake” posthumous letters for the grieving widow whose husband abandoned her, taking her father’s garden gnome and having him send photos of himself traveling the world to inspire her widowed father to get out and experience the world, and my personal favorite, befriending her unusual neighbor who cannot leave his apartment due to a very odd medical condition that makes his bones so frail that the slightest bump will injure him.

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Amelie is a very personal film for me, because I can so much relate to her character. I live very much in my own mind most of the time, and it can be hard to connect romantically, perhaps because I’ve been so hurt. I know we all have been hurt by love, and other people seem to have such an easy time reconnecting after relationship break-ups. Sometimes I feel like a freak because I’ve had such a hard time. It would be wonderful to meet someone and connect with them, but at the same time, I don’t want to be with someone just to be with someone. I want a special connection with someone, and if that’s not meant to be, that’s ok, but I also don’t want to settle for someone I don’t truly have special feelings for. As my Nana Jean used to say in Spanish “mejor sola que mala acompañada.” Better alone than in bad company.

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I think Amélie is somewhat the same. She is such an unusual and unique creature that she needs to find someone as unusual and unique as she is. When she meets Nino Quicampoix……well, “meets” is maybe not the word for it. She sees him collecting torn-up photos from underneath photo booths in metro centers and finds this so oddly charming that she immediately concocts an entire story for his life and why he collects the photos. When she finds his scrapbook of all these photos put back together, she goes on a quest to find him and return it to him, wanting to meet him but at the same time so frightened to meet him in person and engage with him in real life that she creates these elaborate intersections where their paths cross but they never really connect due to her fear of him not liking her as she is. I can relate to that so very much that it’s almost frightening.

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So there were two food’n’flix moments I thought of recreating. The first is early in the film when the narrator is talking about Amelie’s love of small pleasures, such as dipping her hand into a barrel of dried beans, finding shapes in clouds, and breaking a crème brûlée with a spoon (and which is a very underrated pleasure!) The other is at the end, when Nino comes to find her baking a plum cake in her apartment and imagining their life together. It’s such a sweetly beautiful moment when she finally lets him in and he kisses her, after all of her own self-doubts and fear of connection to another person. I opted to go with the plum cake due to having been given a large bag of them fresh from my friend Jade’s tree, and the fact that I don’t have a torch to make the requisite crust on a crème brûlée….and who the hell makes a crème brûlée without a crust you can break with a spoon? Not this girl! So a luscious plum cake, spiced with crushed cardamom and made tenderly delicious with some vanilla Greek yogurt was what it had to be.

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INGREDIENTS
1 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon crushed cardamom pods mixed into 1 cup vanilla Greek yogurt
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound plums, pitted and quartered

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and mix together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt in a bowl.

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In the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar  until fluffy.

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Add the egg and vanilla and mix on low.

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Gradually add in the flour mixture, mixing slowly, and alternate with a spoonful of the cardamom-spiked vanilla yogurt until all is smooth and combined. The batter will be thick, and that is what you want.

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Butter a 9-inch springform baking pan and pour in the thick batter, smoothing with a spatula.

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Arrange the sliced plums on top, skin-side up, in a circle so that they cover most of the batter, and sprinkle over the remaining two tablespoons of sugar.20190826_112910

Bake for 60 minutes, checking at the 45 minute mark, or until golden brown on top. Make sure the center has set and completely baked, then let cool, and serve with a dollop of whipped cream and a smidgen of whimsical romance. Vive la France!

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The Investigative Paranormal Society Cookbook by Charles French

French has a wonderful blog – here’s the link – that I follow and enjoy so very much, in addition to his first book Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society, which I blogged about last year. The book is the story of three older gentlemen who form a paranormal group and go ghost-hunting, only to find that there are spirits and specters more terrifying in life and death than they ever would have thought possible. They do battle with the titular character Maledicus, a wonderfully evil and thoroughly nasty and despicable spirit who was just as bad when he was alive, and it is overall a wonderful, fast-paced and adventuresome book.

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Being a book and food aficionado and having combined these two in my own blog, I was very pleased with the number of cooking and foodie references in Maledicus, and was happy to see that Charles French had decided to pay homage to his characters and their love of food and create this cookbook filled with delicious recipes from the characters in the book. What I like about French’s characters is that they are all so different and yet have the same love of cooking, though they all create different types of cuisine based on their own lifestyles, backgrounds, and abilities. The main character, Roosevelt Franklin, is a widower whose wife Sarah passed away. She was quite the gourmet cook, often making him lots of delectable meals that he would never attempt after her death, missing her so terribly as he does. It’s odd, because although Sarah is dead, she is as much a character in death as anyone else in the book.

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This marvelous little cookbook has such culinary delights as Carrot Cake, Grape and Walnut Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing, Chicken Parmigiana, Quiche Lorraine, and other yumminess, all made by the various other characters in the book. Two main characters and the other two original members of the Investigative Paranormal Society, Jeremy Roche and Sam Sadlowski, are also quite good cooks in their own ways, though rather different in their methods. Jeremy is much more refined than Sam, who’s a retired police officer and whose tastes run to the Hungarian classics of his own family background. Two of the recipes I most wanted to try in this book are both Sam’s.

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I limit my carbohydrate intake most of the time, so I decided to make Sam’s Hungarian Green Beans and Chicken Paprikash, omitting the noodles or rice that traditionally go with this type of dish, and the green beans provided a very nice contrast. The only things I did differently were to add some lemon and more salt to the green beans and cut down the sour cream and heavy cream somewhat to make it lighter; and to use red bell peppers and smoked paprika for the Chicken Paprikash, simply because I prefer their flavors instead.

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INGREDIENTS
For the Chicken Paprikash:
2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, preferably organic
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded and chopped into long slices
2 onions, peeled and diced
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
2 14-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 cups sour cream

For the Hungarian Green Beans:
2 lbs fresh green beans, trimmed
1 large onion, sliced
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1/4 cup paprika
1 generous tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Poach the chicken for 10 minutes, then pat dry, before shredding.

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In a dutch oven, heat the olive oil and add half the smoked paprika so that the oil looks red, and saute the vegetables for 10 minutes.

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Add the canned tomatoes, a dash of salt and pepper, and stir again to mix. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed with more paprika, salt or pepper.

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Add the chicken chunks, cover and simmer on low for up to 2 hours.

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After 1 and 1/2 hours, add in the sour cream and taste again. Let heat, but don’t let the cream curdle.

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During the last half-hour of the Paprikash’s cooking, par-boil the green beans for two minutes in salted water, then immediately blanch in ice water. You want them still a bit crunchy and with their green color intact.

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Saute the onion in a bit of oil and some salt, until softened and slightly starting to caramelize. Just keep an eye on it and keep stirring.

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Mix together the heavy cream, the sour cream and the paprika, and add in the cooled green beans.

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Add in the sauteed onions and the paprika, stir to mix well, and taste. Add the lemon juice here as well as the salt and pepper, and taste. Adjust seasoning as needed. NOTE: this is rather bland so I would recommend more salt and more lemon, for certain.

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Serve together, and enjoy with a nice, full-bodied red wine like Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, and toast the culinary genius of Sam Sadlowski! And a most sincere thank-you to Charles F. French, who created these wonderful characters and recipes. Check out his blog and give the man some love and kudos! And a huge thank you to Charles French for writing this wonderful cookbook and giving me much more cooking inspiration! If you get a chance, head over to his awesome blog and show him and his writing some extra love and attention!

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

I don’t know about you, but I have an incredibly developed sense of smell. Annoyingly so at times, because I can pick out the scent of body odor from 50 feet away. My sister always tells me I have the “nose from hell” and there are times when it feels like hell to be able to smell so intensely. However, the flip side is that I can also smell wonderful, heavenly scents from miles off, like someone brewing fresh coffee, the scent of someone baking a few streets away, the difference in wine bouquets (and if the wine has turned and become oxidized) and many other smells that make up daily life.

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If you think about scent, it’s perhaps the most immediate and visceral when it comes to memory association. I smell certain scents, certain perfumes or colognes, and I am immediately transported to certain places in my past. Smell can be considered a type of defense mechanism when it comes to food because if we can’t visually determine if something is “off,” one good whiff of it can keep us from food poisoning. So can you imagine either not having any sense of smell, or in this case, having the most intense sense of smell ever?

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Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is the anti-hero of this book, born in a fishmonger’s market in Paris in the mid 1700s. (Can you get more French than that?) He is ordinary in every way other than the fact that he has no scent to him whatsoever but he has an abnormally developed sense of smell, so intense in fact that he is able to discern the individual scents of people as well as objects. He becomes a perfumer, working for various powerful people as he develops his own obsession in creating the ultimate scent.

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The kicker? He must kill the people who emit the scents that he finds so enticing and irresistible. Of course, they mainly tend to be young virgins because their scent is so pure to him that he must have it. So begins his career as a murderer in tandem with creating perfumes to sell to the public. His scent obsession is creepily psychosexual as he deeply inhales every single part of the women he kills, including their genitalia.

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Grenouille is so talented at creating scents that he is able to create the scent of anonymity, so that he is able to navigate the world around him, picking out the scents of virginal young women and murdering them to keep their scent, without being noticed. He is eventually so inconspicuous that people who normally wouldn’t give away their own breath have no problem giving him everything he needs or wants.

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Once they caught a whiff of him, the market women filled his pockets with nuts and dried pears because he seemed to them so hungry and helpless. And the butcher’s wife, an implacably callous old hag if there ever was one, let him pick……

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Of course, Grenouille gets his come-uppance in the end, after he’s arrested and purposely emits a scent he’s created that not only makes everyone adore him and have a major orgy in the streets outside his prison cell, but in the end, he is literally consumed by his scent. I won’t go into detail but it’s pretty intense and fairly visceral. This pear and walnut tart should provide a nice offset to his ultimate end.

INGREDIENTS
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 cup toasted walnuts, divided
Pinch of sea salt
7 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1 and 1/4 cups flour plus two tablespoons
2 eggs, one separated out by yolk and white
2 tablespoons softened butter
1/4 cup brandy or orange liqueur
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 medium sized Bosc pears

METHOD
Mix half the sugar, half the toasted walnuts and salt in a food chopper and process until you have a flour-like texture.

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In the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid and using the pastry hook attachment, add the flour, the sugar-walnut mixture, and mix together, gradually adding in one butter cube at a time until a rubbly dough forms.

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Add in the yolks and mix again, scraping the sides as needed, until a ball of dough forms. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.

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Heat the oven to 400F and press the dough into each mini tart pan. Mine are non-stick with removable bottoms, which makes life so much easier.

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Line each tart crust with foil and add some lentils or beans or baking weights to each and blind-bake for 15 minutes, then let cool. (NOTE: Don’t forget to line with foil like I did, dummy that I am. I spent 15 minutes picking lentils out of the blind-baked crust. Yes, I’m a moron at times.)

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Mix together the other half of the walnuts and sugar in the food chopper, until you have a coarse texture, then add in the butter, egg, flour, and salt and mix again until smooth.

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Slice the pears lengthwise and put in a large bowl with the sugar, brandy and lemon juice for about 15-20 minutes, until the pears start to release their juice. Drain.

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Spread the walnut filling into each tart pan.

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Arrange sliced pears over the walnut filling in each pan so they overlap. As I’ve said before, I am the world’s worst cake decorator and we can include tarts in that category. But hey, at least you know mine are homemade, right?

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Put a small sprig of rosemary on each tart, arrange the tarts on a baking sheet and bake until golden, around 30 minutes.

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Once completely cool, push each tart out of the pan from the bottom and serve. The smell of toasted nuts and baked pears spiked with rosemary is out of this world, and likely would invoke the murderous instincts of Grenouille.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

You can almost feel the Italian heat baking down, and smell the bougainvillea flowers, as you read this evocative novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Tom Ripley is a young man from New York, struggling to make something of himself. He’s approached by Mr. Greenleaf who mistakes him for a close college friend of his son, Dickie, who has run off to seaside Italy and essentially gone native there, living in a little house with his girlfriend Marge.

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Mr. Greenleaf offers Tom money to go to Italy and persuade Dickie to come back and resume a “normal” life. Tom meets Dickie and becomes caught up in the other man’s life, obsessively. They bond and become great friends, but several flies in the ointment, including Dickie’s quasi-girlfriend Marge and his obnoxious drinking buddy Freddie Miles, soon threaten their close bond.

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What makes Tom Ripley such a fascinating character study, psychopath that he is, is because we can all relate to him – having feelings of alienation and wanting to find an identity that matches our images of ourselves. Ripley is self-aware on a bizarre level, understanding his two identities and even acknowledging what he’s done by justifying his actions to others and himself. Yet for all the evil deeds he does, he’s not a classic antagonist. He is living his “normal,” as we all are, and the fact that I could sympathize and root for him and understand his motivations tells me that this book was written by a master. It didn’t hurt that the characters of Dickie, Marge and Freddie were all such annoying little prigs.

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Set primarily in Italy, then in France, the scenes in these countries evoke so wonderfully the Mediterranean sun and sea, the taste of salt from the ocean, the sound of boats and birds and busy harbors, and the marvelous flavors that these two countries sometimes share. When Tom is invited to Dickie’s house in Italy for the first time, Sunday lunch is being cooked by Marge – a roast chicken and artichokes –  two of my favorite foods. Yum!

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“The climb up the hill to Dickie’s house didn’t seem half so long as before. Delicious smells of roasting chicken drifted out on the terrace……….’I’m waiting for the darn artichokes to get done. You know that front hole. It’ll barely make anything come to a boil.'”

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Having recently gotten my hot little hands on some culinary lavender, I decided a riff on the classic Sunday roast chicken was in order, spiced up with lavender, lemons, garlic, new potatoes and of course, artichoke hearts – a wonderful melding of the flavors of France and Italy. Oooh la la, or as we tend to say here in New Mexico, oooooh a la!

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 large chicken, about a 6-lb roaster will do.
2 large lemons
2 heads of garlic
1 cup dried lavender granules
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups of artichoke hearts, drained and cut into long chunks
4-5 small red potatoes, cut in half
10-12 sprigs of fresh thyme

METHOD
Your chicken should be at room temperature before roasting, so take it out of the refrigerator a good hour before starting preparations.

Pre-heat the oven to 360F. Butterfly the chicken. This is much easier than you might think. Turn the bird breast-side down, tailside facing you, and cut out the backbone using very sharp kitchen scissors. Then turn it over and press down on it so it flattens and looks like a butterfly. Hence the term “butterfly the chicken.” This YouTube video was how I learned, and it was so easy. If a total klutz like me can butterfly a chicken, you most certainly can! Trust me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-8tMEwBnSA

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Once the chicken is laid out nicely in a large roasting pan, salt and pepper it well. Slice the lemons somewhat thinly, and lay them across the skin of the bird. Tuck some of the lemon slices between the skin and the meat, as well. This helps tenderize the bird and gives more flavor to the skin. Keep half of one of the lemons for later.

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Around the chicken, dot the artichoke hearts, the garlic cloves still in their papery skins, and the potatoes. The idea with the garlic is that they will steam inside the skins and come out soft and sweet and mellow and delicious. Everything looks beautiful in the pan, too.

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Pour the olive oil over the bird and the surrounding vegetables, ensuring everything is well-coated. Add a splash of good red wine, then squeeze the juice of the remaining half lemon over the vegetables. For the final touch, scatter over the dried lavender and the thyme sprigs. The scent is heavenly, spicy and floral and warm at the same time.

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Cover the bird and roast for 2 hours. The smell of the bird cooking, mingled with the lavender and all the yummy vegetables, will make your mouth water. At the 2-hour mark, remove from the oven, increase the heat to 425F, take off the cover, and baste the chicken and vegetable with the pan drippings that have collected at the bottom of the pan. Pour in some chicken broth if you think it looks dry. Tuck the uncovered pan back in the oven and roast under the high heat for another 25 minutes, so the skin darkens and crisps up. Keep an eye on it, though, to make sure the vegetables don’t burn.

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Remove the chicken from the oven, sprinkle over some sea salt, and let the dish rest for a good 10-15 minutes. Then serve and eat with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. But don’t actually START singing. You’ll frighten your guests and they’ll start thinking you’re a madman like Tom Ripley or something.

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The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

If I could have any set of books with me on a desert island, I’d choose the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the Johannes Cabal books by Jonathan L. Howard, and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by the one and only Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This mysterious, lyrical, dark and yet oddly uplifting series, set in Barcelona before, during and after their bloody Civil War, sucked me in from the first two books The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, and the third one, The Prisoner of Heaven, is just as enthralling.

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Here, we pick up the threads of Daniel Sempere, the protagonist from the first book. He is married, has a baby boy, is running his family bookstore, and continues his friendship with the jester-like Fermin Romero de Torres, who is one of the funniest characters in literature. Fermin is a hoot!

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The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book centering around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, but if you haven’t read the other two novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, (both of which I have previously blogged) don’t let that stop you from picking this one up – because you see, Zafón has done something brilliant and perfectly fitting with these books. You can start with any book and read them in any order, and they all remain connected through this one, single, perfect place. In this book the story of Fermin Romero de Torres is detailed out piece by fascinating piece, and Daniel is given more information on the history of his parents. The relationship between Daniel and Bea is also in question – and references to both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game crop up throughout the book in, sometimes, the most surprising of places.

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You can also clearly see Ruiz Zafón’s love for the works of Dumas and in particular, The Count of Monte Cristo. I mean, a secret prisoner, a Gothically dark and unbearable prison, the oddly beautiful way he describes dirt and corruption, making these otherwise revolting elements such a strong part of the overall narrative. Dumas seems to exert a non-stop fascination for modern writers in the Gothic tradition, which makes sense if you think about it. Secret passages, secret identities, secret loves……..all those literary elements that hook us and fascinate us still.

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However, the darkness that seems to live around every corner in post-war Barcelona is well on display here. Barcelona herself is as much a character in this book as anyone else, both the inherent beauty and mystery of this city, as well as its moody darkness and the gorgeous and run-down amusement park atop Mount Tibidabo, which featured prominently in both previous books and is still a huge part of the overall framework here. I can’t imagine these books taking place in any other place in the world, so strongly do they connect to the seedy, dark, violent and beautiful metropolis that is Barcelona.

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There are not too many food references in this book, but that’s ok because I was inspired by one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman. His method for making that classic Spanish dish huevos a la flamenco, or flamenco-style eggs, is so yum that I had to recreate it in honor of Fermin’s eternal love of serrano ham. The nice thing about this particular method is that you can scale it up or down depending on how many people you’re serving, with the ratio of 1-2 eggs per person.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup cubed ham, Serrano preferably but use whatever you can find
1/2 cup chorizo
1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
4 eggs
1/2 cup cooked green peas (use frozen bagged ones here)
4-6 strips roasted red peppers, from a jar
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 415F, and in a cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil and toss in the ham and chorizo. Cook until nicely browned.

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Chop up the tomatoes and line the bottom of four oven-safe ramekins with them.

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Spoon in the cooked ham and chorizo.

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Crack an egg over the tomatoes and meat mixture and season lightly with salt and pepper.

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Toss a spoonful of peas over each egg yolk.

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Add 3-4 strips of roasted red pepper on top of the peas.

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Bake for 15 minutes, or until the egg whites have set but the yolk is still a bit runny, because you need that unctuous golden ooziness to make this dish truly fantastic.

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Allow to cool while you toast some bread – we had green chile cheddar bagels –  and serve, dipping your bread into the nice, gooey egg yolk as you go. So delicious and quintessentially Spanish. ¡Olé!

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A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I realize I am late to the party with this book, but seriously, I only “discovered” A Discovery of Witches, and forgive my cheesy-ass pun, when the Sundance Channel started airing the previews for the TV series based on the book trilogy. The series looked so well-made that I had to read the book and find out what all the hype was about.

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I’ll be honest and say off the top that no one does witches and vampires better than Anne Rice. They simply don’t. The woman has taken lush, lyrical, sometimes purple prose to new heights of sensuality when describing the taste of blood, the sensation of magic affecting the world around us, the scent of skin and flesh, the feeling of luxury in the smallest of details. So I went in fully not expecting anything similar to hers, but still hoping for a good read. And I wasn’t disappointed, though it was a different experience than what I’d expected.

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Matthew Clairmont is a vampire and Diana Bishop is a witch, in this fascinating universe of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They are both scholars in Oxford, Matthew a geneticist and medical doctor, and Diana a PhD-carrying professor of ancient alchemical texts. They meet in a library when Diana, whose witch talents have been “bound” since childhood, inadvertently unearths the magical tome Ashmole 782, an ancient book of magic that purportedly gives the secrets of how vampires, witches and daemons came into being and how any of these magical races might destroy the other and rule the world.

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Slightly melodramatic, yes. Of course, they have an instant attraction to one another, and of course they end up falling in love. The trajectory of their romance isn’t what you’d expect, though, since vampires, witches and daemons are forbidden from “fraternizing,” and they don’t consummate their love, at least not in this book. There are two more after this book, so hopefully they get some action in one of those. 😉

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Harkness writes with an unusual mix of historical reverence and modern sensibility, having her characters be these magical creatures with godlike powers, eternal life, and incredible talents…….and they do yoga. No, seriously. I about died laughing in the beginning of the book when Matthew courts Diana by taking her to a yoga class. Nothing against yoga here, but just the thought of a centuries-old blood drinker twisting himself into a downward-facing dog position gave me the giggles. Anyway, I digress.

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I do have to say that I didn’t much like the character of Matthew, quite honestly. I get that vampires, in this literary universe, are protective of those they love, and at heart, are predators so they consider the chase and the hunt an elemental part of any interaction and relationship. That, combined with being centuries old and being essentially a bossy, old-fashioned man who thinks he knows everything, make him a jerk. Pardon my crudeness, but yes, Matthew Clairmont is sort of a dick. He grew on me eventually, but I still think he’s an arrogant ass at times.

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There are some superb food references in this book, for being in the culinary repertoire of an ancient vampire who doesn’t even ingest food, at least, not much food. Matthew invites Diana to dinner at his elegant home when they are starting to fall in love, though ostensibly he is only inviting her to protect her from the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also sensed that the magical Ashmole has been unearthed and want to get their claws on it. But we all know Matthew has more on his mind than a book.

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The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat……..”it’s an old recipe from Normandy,” he said. “Do you like it?” “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Did you make it?”

I know the book specifies that Matthew makes Diana an old French-style veal stew with apples, but I can’t really stomach veal these days, so in honor of the fact of Matthew’s essential Frenchness, I opted instead for a beef stew with Dijon mustard and brandy. Can you get more Gallic than Dijon and brandy? 🙂

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup brandy
4 cups beef stock, preferably unsalted as the Dijon has quite a lot of salt
1/2 cup stoneground mustard
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots, with a sprinkle of sea salt over them. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Add the butter to the oil in the pan.

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Add the flour, salt and pepper to a large plastic bag, then put in the beef cubes to coat. Shake off excess flour with tongs, and place half the cubes in the pan.

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Cook over medium-high heat until well browned and crusty on all sides, then put into the bowl with the shallots. Repeat with the remaining beef cubes.

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Add the brandy to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose.

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Pour in the beef stock, the Dijon mustard and the stoneground mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender.

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The last 15 minutes of cook time, add the mushrooms and the red wine to the bubbling, fragrant stew. Simmer another 5 minutes, taste for seasoning, and serve with butter noodles and red wine to drink.

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So good and richly flavored! The mustard and brandy really complement one another, and perfectly tenderize the beef. No doubt a vampire would approve. I know we loved it so much we ate it all up before I could take the requisite “food and book” photo, so yet another shot of the luscious stew will have to suffice.

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