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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The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

In honor of Easter Sunday, I decided to reacquaint myself with The Last Temptation of Christ, a book that has a very soft spot in my heart. This is the book and movie for which I was kicked out of Catholic school back in 9th grade. I didn’t get kicked out because I was a troublemaker or kissing boys behind the school or anything sinful that would warrant getting the boot from good old St. Michael’s High School. I got kicked out for asking questions. Let me explain.

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The movie came out in the mid-1980s and caused a huge ruckus in the Catholic Church, the reason being is that the movie – and the book it was based on – showed a scene of Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene. I will give you the context of that scene later in this blog, but oh the horror! My mom fell in with the ridiculous mob mentality of many parents back then and refused to allow my sister and I to see it. So of course, what does forbidding something from someone make them want to do? It makes them want to have it, of course.

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Anyway, I spent the weekend with my Dad during all this brouhaha, and we went to rent movies at Blockbuster one evening. I saw a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ – VHS old school, no less! – and asked if I could rent it. Being that he was a teacher, he was never big on restricting knowledge and so he said yes, I could rent it but I had to watch it with him and he’d answer any questions I might have. Oh goody goody gumdrops, was my reaction. So I watched it and was enthralled with the vision of the human Jesus that I had never previously experienced. (Also, how freakin’ cool is it that David Bowie played Pontius Pilate!!!!)

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I was raised Catholic, obviously, and the Jesus I learned about always knew he was the Son of God and what his ultimate fate would be, or at least, this was how it was presented to me. So to watch this movie, which showed Jesus as a man with doubts and fears and desires who was having visions of God and seeing and hearing things and thinking that he was going insane was a HUGE revelation to me. It’s hard to even put into words just how much of a revelation it was……literally life-changing because from that point on, my entire concept of Jesus and God and religion shifted and I wanted to know more.

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So Monday rolled around and I happily trotted back to St. Mike’s with the scales having fallen from my eyes, as it were, and ended my school day with religion class. I sat down in Brother Ben’s class, we did the lesson and I naively raised my hand to ask a question that had occurred to me after having watched the film. My dad, bless his movie censor heart, had fallen asleep during the film so I couldn’t ask him. Anyway, I can’t remember the exact question, but it infuriated Brother Ben, who was this large, red-faced, beefy Irishman of a priest and his face turned the color of a tomato when I asked my question. He said, “Why are you asking that kind of question?!” in a very peeved tone of voice. I responded “Well, I saw this movie this weekend and it made me start thinking about this so I wanted to ask you.” He responded quite angrily, “What movie did you see?” and dummy me, not seeing the warning signs at the time, said innocently, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Oh my Lord – pardon the pun – it was like throwing a match into a keg of gasoline. He exploded, shouting at me and questioning why my parents would allow me to watch such filth and that I had no business asking those kinds of questions, etc. etc. A few weeks later, at the end of the school year, my mom got a letter from the principal of St. Mike’s suggesting I would be happier in a “non-parochial environment.” I still laugh about it now.

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Anyway, the book tells the story of Jesus and his path to realizing he is the Son of God, his ministry, his temptations, and his crucifixion. But then from there, while he is slowly and agonizingly dying on the cross, it veers into a lengthy, intense vision of what his life would have been like if he had been different, lived as a a normal man. In this vision, he lives, marries the woman he loves Mary Magdalene (hence his vision of them making love and the furor that created in the Church because what a horrible thing for Jesus to imagine his destiny differently), has children and lives an otherwise unremarkable, normal, happy life. In  other words, the sex scene is all in his mind as part of his vision of giving up being the Son of God. If you were dying slowly and horrifically, wouldn’t you want to escape mentally and imagine you were somewhere else with someone you loved? I would, JC! You’re not alone!

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The son of Mary felt calmed. He sat down on the root of the ancient olive tree and began to eat. How tasty this bread was, how refreshing the water, how sweet the two olives which the old lady gave him to accompany his bread. They had slender pits and were as fat and fleshy as apples! He chewed tranquilly and ate, feeling that his body and soul had joined and become one now, that they were receiving the bread, olives and water with one mouth, rejoicing, the both of them, and being nourished.

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Isn’t that the most beautiful description of eating? I just love it. It inspired me to make olive bread, because bread is the most Biblical of foods and olives were common in Jesus’ time, and then of course, you have the whole Mount of Olives reference and so on. This is the method I used, based on a long-remembered recipe from a Mediterranean cookbook I used to have. Best part? No kneading involved.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups lukewarm water
1 package (2 and 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 cups all purpose flour
1 cup mixed green and black olives
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Olive oil
1 teaspoon each of dried parsley, dried basil and dried thyme

METHOD
In a large mixing bowl, combine water and yeast.

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Add one cup of flour and the sea salt, and stir until well mixed.

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Add the sliced olives and the garlic powder. Mix again.

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One cup at a time, stir in the remaining flour. You’ll notice the mixture getting thicker and shaggier with each cupful. This is normal.

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Cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and set somewhere warm to rise for an hour.

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Add a tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch cast iron skillet and coat the bottom and sides of the skillet, then transfer the now-risen and very sticky dough to the oiled skillet. You may need to shape it a bit to make it the round size you want.

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Cover with the tea towel and let it proof another half-hour, and heat the oven to 425F.

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Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil on top of the dough, sprinkle with the dried herbs and maybe a bit of sea salt.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top crust is nice and brown. Isn’t it beautiful? I was so proud!

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Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before removing the bread from the skillet. Let cool a bit more, and serve with either butter or very good extra-virgin olive oil and a glass of red wine. Because it’s Easter. You gotta have the bread and wine to be saved.

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Sexy Sunday! Little Birds by Anaïs Nin

It’s Sunday near the end of Lent, so what else could I have possibly read except some hard-core erotica by one of the world’s foremost feminist writers? Yes, it’s Sexy Sunday again, and Nicole of The Bookworm Drinketh has posted her own take on this book – and her alcoholic escape – over at her blog, so once you’re done reading mine, take a gander at what naughtiness she’s up to today. Here’s the link.

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So. Anaïs Nin. If you’ve heard of Henry Miller or his book Tropic of Cancer, you’ll know about Anaïs Nin. Or if you’ve read her without any prior knowledge of her hot and heavy sexual affair with Miller, you’ll understand what I mean when I say “damn, Anaïs!” Little Birds is her collection of erotic short stories, and what’s fascinating about them is that she explores each facet of sexuality in such a nonchalant, detached way. Some of the stories are a bit subversive, touching as they do on teen sexuality (something we aren’t supposed to acknowledge), and the simple fact that women as as much sexual beings as men are.

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Nin writes very much writes from a sexually liberated viewpoint, and her erotica is very hard-edged and not written with what you might traditionally expect from a female writer in this genre, which is why these stories are so unique and, in my opinion, beyond the usual erotica. I’d imagine most people would expect more flowery, romantic prose, but Nin writes very straightforwardly. This is erotica versus plain ol’ pornography, and I don’t know about you, but I much prefer something erotic and that engages and arouses the mind as much as the body.

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My favorite line has to be this one. “He was whispering over and over again the same phrase, “You have the body of an angel. It is impossible that such a body should have a sex. You have the body of an angel.” The anger swept over Fay like a fever, an anger at his moving his penis away from her hand. She sat up, her hair wild about her shoulders, and said, “I am not an angel, Albert. I am a woman. I want you to love me as a woman.” I’d think any normal, red-blooded woman who enjoys sexuality feels this way. I know I do. I don’t want to be treated like a Victorian maiden made of glass…….I want my lover to understand that I am his equal in terms of desire, fantasies, wants, needs and sheer lust.

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The titular story details a perverted older man who lures the young women from the school across from his apartment up by putting little birds in cages on his balcony, then exposing himself to them when they come to see the birds. Pig. Perhaps I should have made a roast pig dish, but, well, what else was I going to make with that title? Pizza? Yes, I made some little birds and goddamn it, I’m not sorry. OK, I’m maybe a little bit sorry, because quails are so darn cute but I got over being sorry pretty quickly as I crunched into those tasty little baked birdies. Hey, there’s a reason we’re on top of the food chain!

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INGREDIENTS
6 quail, 5 ounces apiece
3 strips bacon, each cut in half

Salt and pepper to taste
1 head of garlic, roasted
Handful of fresh rosemary sprigs. minced
Handful of fresh thyme sprigs, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 cippolline onions, peeled and halved
2-3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 pound red grapes

METHOD
Rinse the quail and pat dry, and season with salt and pepper both inside and outside, and put a half-strip of raw bacon inside each quail cavity.

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Add some of the fresh rosemary and thyme into the bird’s cavity, then squeeze out the roasted garlic cloves and push one inside each bird cavity as well. Drizzle with olive oil and let marinate a good 1-2 hours.

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Heat oven to 450F. In a cast-iron pan, toss the halved cippolline onions with salt, pepper, olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Mix well.

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Bake the onions for 20 minutes, until they caramelize slightly and soften and brown a bit. Set aside.

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Spread the remaining rosemary and thyme sprigs out onto a baking sheet, lay the marinated quail breast-side down, and sprinkle over some of the minced fresh herbs. Roast for 25 minutes, until they have browned nicely.

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Turn the oven up to 550F. Remove the quails, turn them over breast side up, and and scatter around the roasted onions and the red grapes.

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Roast another 10-15 minutes, until the skin crisps. Remove, let rest a good 10-15 minutes, and serve with steamed asparagus. The grapes create a nice, not overly sweet sauce that melds with the balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and is so deliciously sensuous to eat.

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The Homecoming by Andrew Pyper

I love being scared, although I prefer my frights to come from supernatural elements like ghosts, vampires, demons, witches, and the like. Scares that come from real-life terrors like serial killers, home invasions, break-ins, freak me out so badly that I can’t read about them or watch them. It’s just too close to home, pardon the pun. Andrew Pyper is the kind of writer that perfectly expresses both the horror of the supernatural with the eerie “otherness” of human frailty, and he combines them perfectly in this bizarre and creepy read, so even though it ostensibly is about the breaching of one home’s security, it is also about the breaching of our own sense of identity and the concept of what home and security really mean. Which is scary enough to ponder in real life, I might add.

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The Homecoming follows the general trajectory of what you’d expect from a book with this title. Aaron, a surgeon, learns of his father’s recent death and joins his mother and two sisters Bridget and Franny, at the strange estate his father has mandated they must all stay at for 30 days in order to inherit the money in his will. The estate, called Belfountain, is unknown to them all, except it’s not really because Bridget starts remembering being brought there years earlier. So you know some weirdness is going to come at you from left field…………and yuppers, it does!

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They are joined by four other people who claim to be their siblings – you know, the ol’ sister from another mister kind of situation – and they all settle in, trying to come to terms with their father’s “betrayal” of having another entire family, and learning about each new sibling’s odd personal dynamics. And of course, the scary stuff kicks into high gear, including being chased by what appears to be a witch, being stalked by an ax-wielding crazy man, and being cut off from the world against their will. Odd memories start to surface in all of them, and even creepier, they all start to have the same unusual dream about water and being submerged, and you start thinking it’s some kind of supernatural telekinesis. But boy oh boy, it gets so much more messed up than that!

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Pyper is extremely talented at taking traditional horror tropes like demons, vampires, and other such monsters, and cleverly twisting them together with normal human neuroses until you can’t really be sure what the fuck is happening. He did it so well in The Demonologist, one of my favorite books of his, and he does it again here. This book is a twisted combination of Cabin in the Woods, The Haunting of Hill House, and Jordan Peele’s recent creepy-ass film Us, in that it mixes together the ubiquitous isolated house theme with some messed-up family dynamics combined with the whole “strangers who look like us” and turns it into one of the more unnerving books I’ve read lately.

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When Aaron first arrives with his sister Bridget, their mother is already there, taking charge the way any mother might, getting the kids settled in their rooms, feeding them. It’s kind of funny to see these characters trying so hard to hang onto their sense of normalcy and their traditional family roles in the face of such a bizarre situation, but that is likely what any of us would do in similar circumstances. Hold onto our perception of safety and normalcy, until the illusion is torn away and we realize that there really is no safety and no normal in the world.

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By the time we gather around Mom, she’s laid out Tupperware containers of cold roast chicken, broccoli salad, spinach dip. Picnic food. We set to spooning it onto plates, eating as we stand there together, not wanting to return to the unprotected expanse of the dining room’s banquet table. “That shit’ll kill you,” Franny says as I drop a handful of potato chips onto the side of my plate. “And didn’t you used to run four times a week or something? No offense, Aaron, but don’t you think you could lose a few pounds?”

Oh, siblings. Ain’t they just so great?

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Anyway, broccoli salad isn’t something I have made previously, but the idea of a broccoli-chicken salad, despite the negative overtones of church potlucks and picnics from my misspent youth in Catholic school, sounded pretty damn good. And it is Sunday, after all. It’s as close to church as you’re going to get me these days.

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INGREDIENTS
2 heads broccoli, stemmed and cut into florets
6 strips bacon
1 cup mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 green onions, finely diced
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
4 chicken thighs, poached

METHOD
Blanch the broccoli florets by boiling them for one minute, then submersing in a bowl of ice and cold water. That way, they cook a bit but retain their color. (I hate raw broccoli so for me, this step is necessary but if you like raw broccoli, skip it.)

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While the broccoli is blanching, cook the bacon until crisp, drain on a paper towel, and crumble. Set aside.

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Slice the green onions into small pieces, including the stems, and toss into a large bowl.

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Chop up the toasted walnuts and add to the bowl with the onions.

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Finely chop the poached chicken and add to the green onions, the walnuts and the cooled broccoli.

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Add the mayonnaise and the red wine vinegar to the chicken and onions, and mix together well until everything is nicely coated.

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Sprinkle over the bacon, and taste. This is a savory salad, so if you prefer some sweet contrast, add in some raisins or dried cranberries or perhaps some honey. I personally loathe and despise fruit and chicken together in a salad, so I love it just as it is, nice and salty and savory and full of green flavor. But I’m a salty bitch anyway, so it’s perfect for me.

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A Roman Tale by Carroll Baker

I don’t screw up in the kitchen much, so when I do, it’s usually in a spectacular fashion. Today was no different, and I think it must be the universe’s way of getting back at me for daring to read some total fluffy, smutty trash. But it’s set in Italy, I told myself as I opened the book and fell into the 1960’s world of Rome. Well, sometimes a girl just needs some smut in her life, and A Roman Tale delivers. But oh the kitchen fuck-up!

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Anyway, this book combines lots of sex, the film industry, Italy, and some not-so-cleverly hidden allusions to famous actors and actresses into a – heh heh heh – fantastical roman á clef. Get it? A Roman Tale? Roman á clef? Oh, never mind me and my bad pun. Another punishment for screwing up so royally in the kitchen.

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The main character, Madeline Mandell, who is supposed to be based both on the author and actress Carroll Baker and of course, the inimitable Marilyn Monroe, moves to 1960’s Rome – the “La Dolce Vita” years – after her Hollywood career tanks. She’s known as “Venus” due to her sexy image, though the reality is that she’s essentially frigid due to her jerk of a former husband. She hopes the move to Rome will both reignite her movie career and allow her all the sexual experimentation she missed out in in the United States.

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She is befriended by three international actresses – Astrid, Helga, and Cleo (who are supposedly based on Ursula Andress, Anita Ekberg, and Sophia Loren), and starts an Italian film. She is introduced to the debonair Umberto Cassini, who of course she becomes infatuated with and he with her. The parallels to Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita (and one of my top 5 favorite films of all time) are unmissable.

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But of course, nothing ever goes smoothly and the fly in the ointment is the British actress Serena Blair (likely based on Audrey Hepburn), who is pulling some machinations behind the scenes to get all four coveted roles in an upcoming major film, Boccaccio Volgare, that Madeline, Astrid, Helga, and Cleo are vying for.

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It’s pure fun and escapism, this book, adorned with descriptions of beautiful gowns, gorgeous mansions, significant amounts of wild sexual escapades including a group orgy, girl-on-girl, masturbation, a little back-door action and of course, the final lovemaking scene between Umberto and Madeline that (SPOILER ALERT!) literally ends with them living happily ever after when they are married. Other storylines are interspered as well, involving the many and varied sexual escapades of nearly every single character in the book, and there is not a damn thing wrong with that. I’d say it’s good clean fun, but it’s actually really trashy, not particularly well-written, extremely smutty, fun.

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Hey, a little smut never hurt anyone!

Rome, of course, is the star of the book and all the stunning landscapes of The Eternal City are described in mouthwatering detail…….La Bocca della Veritá, Piazza Navona, The Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, Fontana di Trevi, Palatine Hill, and so much more. I think I stuck with the book mainly for the location descriptions, though the sex and the food helped whet my appetite. For cooking, of course! 🙂

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A subplot involves a young Italian starlet named Pina who seduces most of the men and infuriates most of the women at her extravagant wedding. Umberto squires Madeline and they share in the mammoth five-course feast, featuring several pastas and many other delectable-sounding dishes.

After the spaghetti alla primavera, there was tagliatelli with cream and peas, penne with cheese and asparagus, ravioli with cognac and truffles, and then the antipasto assortment. The main course was roast pork with kidneys, sausages, roast potatoes, and spinach puffs.

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Having decided this was a great excuse to play with the pasta maker attachment for the Kitchen Aid and make fresh homemade pasta from scratch, I decided to recreate the penne with asparagus mentioned as part of the wedding feast. It did not come out well, as I will detail below. And for the record, do not ever let anyone tell you making homemade pasta is easy, at least the first time around. It isn’t. Wear an apron because if not, you’ll have flour all over you. ALL OVER YOU. Also, it’s way messy. Like, use every pan and stirring implement and utensil in the kitchen messy. (This is the aftermath of my kitchen post-making fresh pasta.)

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INGREDIENTS

For the pasta:
3 eggs, cold
2 and 1/2 cups 00 flour
1 teaspoon sea salt

For the sauce:
1 lb. fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into roughly 1/2″ chunks
1 shallot
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
6-7 strips pancetta
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup of white wine
1/2 cup water from the boiled pasta
Parmesan cheese to taste

METHOD
Measure out the flour onto a flat surface, and make a well in it.

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Crack in the eggs, and mix them into the flour using a fork.

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Once the eggs are incorporated, start kneading by hand. You may have to add some warm water if your dough mixture is too dry and crumbly.

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Roll and knead the dough until it coheres, then form it into a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for up to an hour, if not longer.

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Put on a large pot of water to boil and add some sea salt. While the water is heating, chop the shallot and garlic and add to a pan with the olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.

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Finely chop up the pancetta and add to the shallot and garlic, and fry until it starts to get crispy.

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Pour in the heavy cream and the wine, and bring to a very low simmer, then toss in the asparagus chunks.

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Cover and let cook slowly over low heat, and flour a flat surface. Unwrap the pasta dough and start rolling it out into a round disc shape.

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When it’s about a half-inch thick in diameter, cut into pieces, roll into small balls, and start feeding them into your pasta machine.

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I attempted penne. You can see that, in this case, concept far outweighed execution……other than my desire to execute myself over the travesty that was my homemade pasta. But at least my cute dog is in the pic, to distract you.

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Put the freshly cut pasta into the boiling water on the stove and cook. In theory, the pasta should cook within a couple of minutes. In reality, my pasta cooked and cooked and cooked and softened after maybe 10 hard minutes of boiling. I still can’t figure out what I did wrong, but luckily I’m a seasoned kitchen hack so I had a packet of ready-made fettuccine on hand.

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Add the fettuccine to the boiling water, and cook for 8 minutes until al dente. Add about half a cup of the pasta water to the asparagus sauce and let simmer a few more minutes.

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Grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

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Plate and serve. So although my penne was somewhat of a disaster, it actually tasted quite nice. The texture was quite thick, so I think I probably should have rolled it out thinner or perhaps refrigerated it longer. Regardless, I served my sad penne with the perfectly cooked fettuccine, swirled in the pan of creamy asparagus and pancetta.

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It might have looked somewhat frightful, but it actually was delicious. I just closed my eyes and pretended I was in Rome having smutty sex rather than eating what my friend Janet called “pasta and dumplings.” (sigh)

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The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Finely dice the basil and oregano.

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

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

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

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

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

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Sexy Sunday! Exit to Eden by Anne Rampling (Anne Rice)

WARNING: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS VERY EXPLICIT SEXUAL REFERENCES AND LANGUAGE! LUCKY YOU!

So Nicole at The Bookworm Drinketh and I are doin’ the sexy again…….no, not like that, you perverts! We’re revitalizing our blog collaboration Sexy Sunday, where we read a book notorious for its sex scenes, she blogs it in conjunction with a cocktail recipe, and I blog it in conjunction with a recipe. And yes, I know it’s Monday – I finished the blog and cooking yesterday so it still is technically a Sunday post…..I just don’t know how to schedule blog posts, apparently. 🙂 This is why I blog and cook and write, instead of work as an IT tech. Anyhoo………..

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By now, if you don’t know that Anne Rampling is actually Anne Rice, you must have been living under a rock. Anne Rampling is notorious for this steamy erotic novel that combines love with some very hot S&M sexual escapades. I think part of why I love this book so much, other than the fact that much of it is set in New Orleans (my favorite city in the world), is because the female protagonist is as open and shameless about her sexuality as is the male. She has fantasies, she has desires, and the beauty of it all is that her job is to indulge the sexual fantasies and desires of others, as well as herself. There’s no judgement, no shaming about female sexuality, and I just love that, particularly because when this book was written, in 1985, female sexuality was barely coming to forefront in literature. I mean, you had The Story of O, but beyond that, there was really nothing on this level of both sheer eroticism and erudite literary quality. Now, of course, you see books everywhere that purport to celebrate female sexuality – and I’m talking to you, Fifty Shades of Grey – but that in reality, are just badly written, purple-prose garbage. This book is the big, bad granddad of them all. Writers of erotica, take notice.

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The storyline is thus: Lisa runs a private resort island called The Club that caters to extremely wealthy  men and women who want to live out their most extreme and repressed sexual desires  revolving around sadism and masochism. Not to the point where anyone is really hurt, you understand, but gives people the opportunity to be sexual masters or sexual slaves as they so desire, indulging their wildest impulses with men, women, groups, etc. There are sports, activities, equipment, anything and everything that you’d find in a regular beach resort, except that this place is exclusively for fucking anyone you can get your hot little hands onto, in as many ways and within as many hot scenarios as possible.

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Elliott comes to The Club as a willing slave. He’s photojournalist who’s been through the wringer emotionally, having witnessed and photographed war, violence, torture, and abuse. The Club is essentially his way of dealing with all the violence he’s seen over the years, processing it all by giving himself a safe place in which to experience being out of control. If you think about it like that, acting out all your uncensored sexual fantasies in a completely safe and totally judgement-free environment, is a way better way to sublimate negative urges than drinking, drugs, or abusing yourself or others.

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Of course they fall in love, because that’s what’s at the heart of the book. They are both highly intelligent, literate, well-traveled, extremely sexual beings. And they have some pretty hot, wild, reverse-role sex on the island.

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“It’s worse than being whipped, isn’t it,” she purred, “being tortured with pleasure?”……. She’d picked up something from the dresser. It looked at first glance like a pair of flesh-colored, leather-clad horns. I opened my eyes to see it clearly. It was a dildo in the form of two penises joined at the base with a single scrotum, so damned lifelike the cocks seemed to be moving of their own volition as she squeezed the soft massive scrotum……It was marvelously well defined, both cocks oiled and gleaning, each with carefully delineated tips……”Ever been fucked by a woman, Elliott?” she whispered, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. Her face was moist, eyes large and glazed………She lowered the phallus and pushed one end of it up and into herself, her whole body moving in a graceful undulation to receive it, the other end curving outwards, and toward me just exactly as if she were a woman with an erect cock……..Then came that exquisite feeling of penetration, of being opened, that gorgeous violation as the oiled cock went in. Too gentle, too delicious, up to hilt, and then rocking back and forth, and a low buzzing pleasure coursing through all my limbs from that one heated little mouth. God, if she had only rammed it, made it a damned rape. No, she was fucking me…..she worked it like it was part of her, the soft rubber scrotum warm against me, just liker her hot naked belly and her hot little thighs. My legs had spread out. There was that overpowering sensation of being filled, being skewered, and yet that rich, exquisite friction. I hated her. And I was loving it…….She knew where she was driving it, rocking it. I was going to come, jerk right into the air.

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Whew! Let me fan myself a sec.

Then Lisa goes a little nuts and takes Elliott by private jet (and against Club regulations)  for a romp in New Orleans, where they proceed to have even more, hotter and intense sex, along with exploring the city and having adventures both in and out of the bedroom. Well, hell. Tons of sex. Hot main characters. Delicious food and my favorite city in the world. OF COURSE I love this book. In one of my favorite passages, Elliott takes Lisa to what I think is the best restaurant in New Orleans, the famous Pascal’s Manale on Napoleon Avenue, and they proceed to down platefuls of Manale’s amazing barbecue shrimp with bread and it sounds just delicious!

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And then came the barbecue shrimp, which was nothing short of fantastic, and she started in at once. I don’t think I could love a woman that couldn’t eat this barbecue shrimp. First of all the dish isn’t barbecued at all. It’s a mess of giant whole shrimp, with their heads on, baked in the oven in a deep dish of peppery marinade. They bring it to the table just like that and you tear off the heads of the shrimp and peel them and eat them with your fingers. It turns you into a gourmet, then a gourmand, then a barbarian. You can enjoy it white wine or red, it’s so peppery, but the best way is with beer………..

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Living in the Southwest, it’s difficult if not impossible to find Gulf Coast head-on shrimp, which form the basis of Manale’s shrimp dish. It’s the head that gives the dish so much extra flavor, with all that extra fatty tissue. But I did a bit of research and found this awesome version on the NPR website  which uses headless shrimp and offers added flavor variations to make up for the loss.

INGREDIENTS
1 pound headless raw, thawed shrimp, shell-on
3/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup Louisiana hot sauce – my twist
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
4 teaspoons black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil

METHOD

Wash and pat dry shrimp.

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Mix together all the dried spices with the garlic, the Lea and Perrins, and the Louisiana hot sauce in a large bowl.

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Pour the olive oil over the shrimp, and add the white wine.

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Add the oily, winy shrimp to the bowl of spices and stir to mix well.

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Add a large pat of butter to a hot skillet and dump the spice-flecked shrimp.

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Cook over high heat until the shrimp are pink and plump and finished. Don’t overcook the shrimp because they will become rubbery. And who the hell wants a rubbery shrimp?

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Serve the shrimp in a soup bowl. Eat with lots of napkins, some good hard-crusted bread for dipping up the delicious sauce, and either some cold white wine, room-temperature red wine, or an ice-cold beer. Hell, have all three! We’re not picky in this house.

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“Tell Me a Story” Podcast Interview about Food in Books

Hey, check out my interview with the wonderful Annette Rochelle Aben on her podcast!  Tell Me a Story

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Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

I’ve felt a bit burnt out with my blog writing lately, though I can’t figure out if it’s because I’ve read through most of the books I really wanted to, or just haven’t felt the yen to cook. It’s a combination of both, but I think the New Year and wintertime is so gray and depressing that it saps the energy out of me. Also, sometimes the thought of making the same old dishes is boring.

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So when my friend Corey recommended Behind Closed Doors, my initial reaction was “meh.” It’s not that it didn’t sound good, it’s just that this genre of book is not usually my first choice. Along the same lines of The Girl on The Train (which is one my earliest blog posts), Gone Girl, and the ilk – you know, those psychological thrillers that follow a fairly familiar trajectory of a unreliable female narrator who finds herself in a very twisted peril – this book was actually very intense. Just goes to show, never judge a book by its genre.

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I actually read this book in three hours because it hooked me with the first paragraph and didn’t let me go. Starting with a dinner party given by Jack and Grace, the two main characters, it introduces what looks like the ideal, perfect marriage. Jack is wealthy, successful, handsome and charming. Grace is gorgeous, beautifully dressed, maintains a flawless home and figure, and can cook like a dream. So of course you know that there is some seriously fucked-up stuff going on under the surface.

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Anytime I look at a person, a couple, a family and they come across as ‘perfect,” I automatically go on red alert. There is no such thing as perfection, so when someone posits that their life, their home, their job, their marriage, their family dynamic has little or no flaws, floats on calm seas, and in particular, when their social media shows nothing but perfection, you can bet money that there is a lot of chaos, drama, trauma and negativity under the surface.

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You find out pretty quickly just how evil Jack is, and he is a truly nasty son of a bitch, though his character isn’t really well developed because you don’t get a huge amount of background about why he turned out to be such a bastard. I wish there had been more back story for him, because like all villains, he’s a lot more entertaining. Grace is more developed, and you definitely come to understand just how insinuating Jack’s manipulations are, when you realize exactly why he has targeted her and how he goes about breaking her psychologically. TRIGGER WARNING: there is a scene of animal death, where Jack kills Grace’s dog when they arrive home after their honeymoon. If you’re like me and cannot in any way read about animal violence, be warned. I had to skip over it. It doesn’t detract from the story, and in this case, it truly showcased what a horrendous prick Jack is, so it’s not gratuitous like some books can be when they unnecessarily have scenes of torture, gore, rape and horrendous death of characters, which I absolutely hate.

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She waits until Jack has carved the beef Wellington and served it with a gratin of potatoes, and carrots lightly glazed with honey. There are also tiny sugar peas, which I plunged into boiling water just before taking the beef from the oven. Diane marvels that I’ve managed to get everything ready at the same time, and admits that she always chooses a main course like curry, which can be prepared earlier and heated through at the last minute. I’d like to tell her that I’d much rather do as she does, that painstaking calculations and sleepless nights are the currency I pay to serve such a perfect dinner. But the alternative – serving anything that isn’t perfect – isn’t an option.

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One of the many ways that Jack has come to control Grace – and by which she has subtly gained back some small control herself – is in his exactitude and precision for all things, particularly cooking.  Beef Wellington with duxelles. I’d never made Beef Wellington before and thought it sounded like an exciting challenge, so here we go! Note: I used a center cut of beef tenderloin, which is quite pricey, though I think it’s worth it to splurge once in awhile.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pints white button mushrooms
1 large shallot
7 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 two-pound center cut beef tenderloin
Olive oil, sea salt, and pepper
8-10 slices prosciutto
2-3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 pound puff pastry
Flour for rolling out the pastry
1 egg, beaten with a bit of water and sea salt

METHOD
In a food chopper or processor, pulse together the mushrooms, shallot, garlic, thyme, and tarragon, until finely minced.

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Melt the butter and olive oil in a pan, add the chopped mushroom mixture, and saute with a sprinkle of sea salt for 10-12 minutes, until most of the moisture has evaporated. Set aside to cool.

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On some plastic wrap, lay out the prosciutto, overlapping so you have a large sheet, then spread a thin layer of the cooled mushroom mixture onto the prosciutto.

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Drizzle the meat with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and sear it in a cast-iron pan on high for about 2 minutes per side, on all four sides.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. then smear the Dijon mustard on all sides of the meat.

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Place the meat on top of the mushrooms, cover tightly with the prosciutto strips, seal over the plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F and sprinkle flour on a flat surface. Roll out the puff pastry long enough so that it will completely cover the meat.

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Remove the meat from the refrigerator, cut off the plastic, and lay it in the center of the pastry. Fold over the pastry tightly until the meat is completely covered.

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Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and sprinkle over a bit more salt. Place seam-side down on a flat baking tray, cut some slits in the pastry, and bake 45 minutes, or until the internal meat temperature is 120F.

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Remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes before slicing with a serrated-edge knife and serving.

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I served mine with roasted red creamer potatoes and roasted radishes in a garlic-herb coating.

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The cut of meat is incredibly tender, so tender in fact, that we were able to cut it with a fork.  Sooooooooo delicious and decadent, a real treat for the tastebuds.

 

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

Reading this book and getting to know the main character of Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was both a joy and a sadness. This is a man with a great lust for life, dancing and drinking and eating and womanizing…….and with a talent for making decisions based on instinct and as oftentimes as not, ending up in worse circumstances.

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The trajectory of Cesar’s life is told in this book. He is a musician who comes from Cuba with his younger brother Nestor, both of them determined to make a name for themselves in the musical world of mambo in 1950s New York City. Nestor is a dreamer, sensitive and still in love with Maria back in Cuba, for whom he writes the song that will launch he and his brother into a semblance of success, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” While the title references both brothers, however, the book is truly Cesar’s tale of joy, woe, happiness, pain, and ultimately, calm satisfaction with his life. It really is the story of any man, of Everyman.

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Cesar is bigger than life, with appetites to match. He is the businessman, the driving force of the two brothers, yet – spoiler alert – when Nestor dies, a part of Cesar goes with him……..which all of us who have loved and lost someone can well relate to. There were times, though, when his life went from bad to worse, when his boozing and whoring made him into such a sad pathetic jerk, that I threw the book down in disgust. But I picked it up and continued reading, because his character is so fascinating, so resilient and ultimately, so filled with the joy of life.

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There’s a sense of wonder in this book that conveys Cesar’s mindset so well. You can understand why he continues to make the same mistakes over and over, yet still find something new and precious in his life. He is such a strong, tough, macho man, sensual, able to turn the world a bit on its axis toward him, and yet has those colossal weaknesses that bring him back down to earth.

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One passage in particular stood out to me. It’s just after they have appeared on the I Love Lucy show with Desi Arnaz, who becomes somewhat of a patron to them, and their Irish neighbor Mrs. Shannon comes to congratulate them and to goggle at Cesar, for whom she has a huge crush.

“She followed Cesar down the hallway…..through the kitchen into the dining room: they had a long table still set with platters of bacalao – codfish cooked with garlic – black beans, rice, a huge salad, pork chops and steaks from the plant, and a big bowl of yuca.”

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Yuca, a quintessential Cuban food, is also one of the simplest and tastiest things to cook. It’s a root vegetable, kind of like a potato or turnip but with more flavor. I cooked them still frozen, in chicken broth mixed with lemon juice and a chicken broth cube, about 30 minutes, to thaw, then added some olive oil and simmered on low another half hour to cook through. They do have a woody center that’s inedible so take that out before you eat. The pan juices, reduced, make a lovely sauce. Add salt if needed. The Cuban-style black beans were easy – I cheated and used canned black beans, and mixed them with gently sauteed onion, garlic, green pepper, salt and cider vinegar, mashing them to thicken.

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However, it was the bacalao that was the star of the show, based on this great recipe from La Cocina de Nathan. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb salt-cured bacalao

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2 eggs
2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking soda
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
6-7 cloves of garlic, either mashed into a paste or as finely grated as possible

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1.5 cups of water
Freshly ground black pepper

METHOD
Soak your bacalao overnight, changing the water every 2-3 hours. This is to drain the salt and also reconstitute the fish, kind of like what you do with dried porcini. Refrigerate the rinsed, drained and desalted cod until ready to use.

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Let bacalao come to room temperature. Peel the fish meat off the skin, taking out all the bones and scales. Flake with your hands, though initially you may need to use a sharp knife until the meat begins to break down.

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In a separate bowl, mix the flour and the baking soda together and whisk to evenly combine. Add the eggs to the flour and baking soda and whisk again. It will be a fairly crumbly mix, which is what you want at this point.

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Start gradually incorporating the water, until you have a thick, batterlike consistency. Add the chopped parsley and the mashed garlic and mix again.

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Then add your bacalao pieces, and stir well to mix. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Ideally you should refrigerate overnight. But in this case, hell no. I was hungry!

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Heat grapeseed oil in a large pan. When smoking hot, drop in spoonfuls of the bacalao batter. Don’t crowd the pan, as too many cooking at once will drop the oil temperature, which is what makes fried food greasy.

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Cook 3-4 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel to drain.

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Serve beautifully with the black beans and the garlic-flavored yuca, and of course, some wine.

“In the name of the mambo, and the rumba, and the cha-cha-cha.”