Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

One of my Christmas gifts, this book is one of the most compelling that I’ve read in ages. I’m a terrible literary snob, as I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows my blog, and I am very picky about what I read. So when I am compelled by a book, for me I know it’s a keeper. Once Upon a River combines the sensation of a fairy tale with the scientific sensibilities of the late Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and advances in science and technology were nearly daily occurrences. The titular river is based on the Thames, but it’s not quite the same Thames River nor is the timeframe ever truly specified. The feeling is one of magical realism, and though I have previously said that only the Latin American writers can truly do magical realism well, I have to slightly alter my opinion on this and include Diane Setterfield in that category.

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The river flows past a pub in which the regulars gather to drink and tell stories, either fables from long ago, made-up tales about goings-on in their own midst, or more rarely, about Quietly, the mythical riverboat man who helps those who are in danger of drowning and, in true Charon-like fashion, takes those whose time it is to the other side. Very Greek mythology, River Styx symbolism. A stranger stumbles in one night covered in blood and carrying a little girl in his arms. The village nurse, Rita, knows she is dead, so when the little girl comes back to life, you know a mystery is afoot. But who is the child? Is she the long-lost daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Or is she the granddaughter of the multiracial farmer Armstrong? Or possibly the sister of Lily White, who vanished mysteriously and whose disappearance is the framework of Lily’s story itself.

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It’s difficult to describe this book, because it’s so unique. The lyricism of the prose is the standout quality of the book, yet the mystery of who the girl truly is, combined with the interwoven stories of all the village inhabitants and how they have all ended up where they are, is just as fascinating. I loved Rita’s character, but I love strong women so of course she was my favorite. A trained nurse with an intense knowledge of medical matters, she applies her intellect and reason to all things to try and figure them out. It is she who attempts to solve the mystery of the girl from the river.

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The child is herself a mystery, as she never speaks, obsessively watches the river and seems to be longing for her father. She takes on qualities of all three missing little girls, and at times, seems to be all of them and none of them. A true enigma, her coming seems to also usher in a time of miracles and mysteries. A longtime bachelor of the village, Mr. Albright, is suddenly compelled to propose to his longtime housekeeper/mistress and their summertime wedding is one of the most charmingly described scenes in the book, though the mystery of the girl continues to be a hot topic.

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After the speeches, talk of the girl was renewed. Events that had taken place on this very riverbank, in the dark and in the cold, were retold under an azure sky, and perhaps it was an effect of the sunshine, but the darker elements of the tale were swept away and a simple, happier narrative came to the fore…….The cider cups were refilled, the little Margots came one after the other and indistinguishably with plates of ham and cheese and radishes, and the wedding party had enough joy to drown out all doubt……Mr. Albright kissed Mrs. Albright, who blushed red as the radishes, and at noon precisely the party rose as one to continue celebrations by joining the fair.

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Radishes and cheese sounded like an oddly good combination, so I did a little research and found these delicious cheddar-radish-carrot scones at the Fiction Kitchen Podcast, which is one of my absolute favorites and who I keep hoping will want to collaborate with me someday. If you know anyone over at Fiction Kitchen podcast, put in a good word for yours truly, ok? Anyway, my method is based on their wonderful scones that were actually inspired by the Peter Rabbit series of books, but of course I added in my own flavoring tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
12 baby carrots
12 radishes
4-5 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/4 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons dried onion
3-4 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 stick (or 8 tablespoons) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and wash and slice the carrots and radishes. Lay them on a baking tray, sprinkle over the garlic powder and the olive oil, and roast for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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In a bowl, mix together the flour, the baking powder, the sea salt, the dried onion, and the black pepper.

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In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, with the pastry hook attachment, mix the dry ingredients together with the butter cubes, a few at a time, until a crumbly dough forms.

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Combine the heavy cream and the egg together with a whisk.

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In a food chopper, finely mince the radishes and carrots.

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Mix together the shredded cheeses with the vegetables, then pour over the cream-egg mixture. Stir well to combine.

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A spoonful at a time, add this to the dry ingredients, and mix together at a medium speed until a sticky ball of dough forms.

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Put the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

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Cover a flat surface with flour, and roll out the dough. It is fairly sticky, so flour your rolling pin as well.

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Cut out round shapes with a biscuit cutter and lay them on a lined baking tray. Sprinkle over a little shredded cheddar on top of each scone, then bake for 20 minutes and allow to cool.

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Oh my, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite as tasty as they were, and although mine didn’t rise (I probably need some newer baking powder), the cheesy flavor combined with the roasted savoriness of the radish and carrot gave it a wonderful flavor! Excellent with a nice bowl of soup on a cold day, or even as breakfast! Thanks, Food Fiction Podcast, for the inspiration!

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Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

I am a diehard Bond Girl. I’ve seen all the films, read all the books and of course, have my own opinions about who has been the best Bond of all. Having a major crush on Timothy Dalton, I am biased in his favor, but there is also something to be said for the talents (not to mention eye candy quality) of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. All three are are quite handsome in a rough-hewn, craggy kind of way. Pierce Brosnan, though also quite a gorgeous specimen of the male gender, was a bit too polished and smooth for my taste. Roger Moore and George Lazenby were the weakest Bonds, in my book (haha!).

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In rereading Casino Royale, I came to the conclusion that the reason these rough-around-the-edges cinematic 007s are more to my taste is because they are closer to his book character, which is why I like them. A man who is elegant and polished, yet still has that roughness, that “throw down,” is incredibly sexy to me.

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James Bond is not a very likable character, for all his perspicacity as a spy. He’s witty, urbane, but with that dark edge that allows him to use people and not care about his effect in their lives. It’s not just with women, although they do tend to be rather interchangeable and disposable. As an agent provocateur, it is probably a matter of life or death to be able to sharply and coldly cut someone out of one’s life, and this aspect of Bond’s character is much more apparent in the books, as his thought process and internal meanderings are well described. In Casino Royale, you get the origin of his coldness toward women, when he meets and falls hard for Vesper Lynd, a fellow secret agent who initially is not very impressed with Bond…..which, of course, intrigues him It’s such a typically male response to a woman that it made me laugh.

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Vesper and Bond share a luxurious dinner at the Casino Royale, while they wait for the high-stakes gambler Le Chiffre, whom they have been sent to watch and infiltrate his empire. Bond tells Vesper to order expensively and do honor to her fabulous evening gown. She takes him at his word and they order their meals.

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“I’d like to start with caviar and then have a plain grilled rognon de veau with pommes souffles. And then I’d like to have fraises de bois with a lot of cream. Is it very shameless to be to certain and so expensive?” She smiled at him knowingly…………”While Mademoiselle is enjoying the strawberries, I will have half an avocado pear with a little French dressing.”

Fraises de bois are wild strawberries, and difficult to find in New Mexico. However, seeing as strawberries and cream are one of my desert island meals, with the tartness of strawberries contrasting so nicely with a lightly sweetened cream, I couldn’t not make it to go with the centerpiece meal. An avocado pear, which is a half-avocado stuffed with whatever you like, is delish! Lobster and avocado have a natural affinity for each other and I love them together, the jade green of the avocado and the deep pink of the cooked lobster creating a beautiful food palette that’s almost too gorgeous to eat. Almost. And you can’t beat lobster for sheer luxury. I got mine at Nantucket Shoals, and I highly recommend you visit there, either in person or via their website.

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This is the method that worked for me for the stuffed avocado pear, taken from the great Emeril Lagasse, but with a few tweaks by me. Enjoy!

INGREDIENTS

For the avocado pear:
2 large avocadoes
2 cups lobster meat, cooked and finely cubed
1 tablespoon homemade mayonnaise (see method below)
1 teaspoon of truffle oil

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Juice of one medium lemon
Fresh chives, finely chopped

METHOD
Mix together the lobster meat, the mayonnaise and the truffle oil. Let the flavors mingle in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

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Add the lemon juice and taste for seasoning. Sprinkle in some sea salt if you think it needs it, but the homemade mayo has plenty of flavor and saltiness, so you may not.

Halve the avocadoes and carefully scoop out the meat, retaining their shape so that they form green cups. Squeeze over a bit of lemon juice to keep the avocadoes from blackening.

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Put a large spoonful of the lobster mixture into each avocado half, so you have four tasty little green cups full of seafood heaven! Garnish with the chives and admire the beautiful pink and green deliciousness before chowing down. 007 would most certainly approve of this avocado pear!

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The homemade mayo was simply one egg yolk (organic and free range), 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, one teaspoon of white wine vinegar, one teaspoon of lemon juice, a half-teaspoon of sea salt, and incorporated very slowly and whisked in drop by drop, a 3/4 cup of regular olive oil – all at room temperature. Don’t use a blender or it will be runny. I hand-whisked for 20 minutes and although it is quite an arm workout, the end result is so worth it.

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The strawberries, I simply marinated in Amaretto and lemon juice for about an hour, while I whipped some heavy cream with sugar and a dash or two of Campari liqueur. The Campari makes the cream a gorgeous, pale pink, like the inside of a seashell. It creates such a beautiful accent for the glistening, red strawberries. You pile it into a fancy glass and eat. Or, if James Bond were to drop by, you could have him feed it to you, berry by berry. (sigh)  A girl can dream!

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I would be a terrible Bond girl if I didn’t include this classic paragraph:

“A dry martini,” Bond said. “In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordons, one of Vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Very much a fairy tale for adults, Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a London commuter who stops to help a young woman lying bleeding on the sidewalk one night, and finds himself in the alternate universe of London Underground. The parallels with Alice in Wonderland are fairly obvious – falling into an underground alternate reality, coming of age – yet this is a much darker and bloodier otherworld.

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Without giving too much away, the inverses in London Underground are pretty fascinating. Angels are evil, doors can be opened to anywhere, and the environment resembles more of a medieval estate than modern London. Richard goes through a significant transformation when he is there. He goes from being a young, rather naive man who is willing tolerate bad behavior from his fiancee because he simply thinks this is how it is, to having a mind and will of his own. He knows he is worthy of so much more, because he’s proven himself. In many ways, this book is a “bildungsroman” as it details his transformation from boy to man.

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In one passage, Richard and Door, the young woman he stopped to help and who essentially brought him to London Underground, wake up with ungodly hangovers from drinking heavenly wine with the Angel Islington. They’ve been found by Serpentine, a type of Amazon woman and part of a group of women who act as hunter/protectors and who, in her rough way, tries to help with the hangovers by feeding the two of them. Quite ironically, I too, woke up with a hangover this morning – my first in many years. I blame my friends Jake, Maggie and Heather, without whom I would not have overindulged in red wine last night. But we had a marvelous time, and this quiche can cure any hangover. It certainly did mine.

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“What is there to eat?” asked Hunter. Serpentine looked at the wasp-waisted woman in the doorway. “Well?” she asked. The woman smiled the chilliest smile Richard had ever seen cross a human face, then she said, “Fried eggs poached eggs pickled eggs curried venison pickled onions pickled herrings smoked herrings salted herrings mushroom stew salted bacon stuffed cabbage calves foot jelly – “

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While pickled eggs DO NOT have any kind of attraction for me, the savory tastes of fried eggs, salted bacon and mushrooms caught my attention. Remembering the wonderful fried tomatoes I had as part of a delicious morning meal when visiting London a few years ago, I decided a riff on the classic British breakfast was in order.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1.5 cups regular flour
4 tablespoons unsalted, chilled butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons chilled shortening, also cubed

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1/4 cup ice-cold water
5 slices of smoked bacon, good quality
4 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 carton sliced mushrooms
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup of half and half or heavy cream
2 large tomatoes, sliced
1 cup of grated cheese – I used a mixture of sharp cheddar and Monterey Jack

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METHOD

Gradually mix together the flour, the cubed butter and the cubed shortening until it forms a “rubbly” texture. I used my most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer with the pastry hook attachment. It’s important that your butter and shortening are cold cold cold.

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Gradually add the cold water until a dough is formed. Mine was sticky so I added a bit more flour to the mixer. Wrap the dough in plastic, form it into a ball and knead it a bit before refrigerating.

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Heat the oven to 375F. Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface. Don’t use your kitchen counter as you will have a mess and if you’re doing it recovering from a hangover, it will not make you happy. Trust me.

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Press the rolled-out dough into a pie pan. Chill it again for another 10 minutes. Poke a few holes in the bottom crust with a fork. Then bake the empty quiche shell for 10 minutes.

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While the crust is both chilling and baking, fry the bacon in a little bit of  olive oil. Remove and drain, then crumble.

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Cook the mushrooms, garlic powder and thyme leaves in the bacon oil for about 10 minutes. The smell is out of this world! But do watch out for spatters from the hot oil.

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In a separate bowl, add the eggs, salt and pepper. Whisk together, then add the slightly cooled mushrooms and the bacon. Add in the heavy cream and the cheese and whisk together again.

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Pour into the slightly baked quiche pieshell and top with the sliced tomatoes. Isn’t that pretty?

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Bake for up to 50 minutes, checking occasionally. When the crust is golden-brown, that’s usually when it’s ready. The filling will have set, and the smell of the mushrooms and the savory scent of roasting tomatoes will also give you a hint.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and serve in generous slices. Accompany it with a hibiscus cocktail, which is champagne and cranberry juice, very necessary “hair of the dog” for a hangover. The flavors are luscious – the sharp cheese, the savory tomatoes, the salty bacon and the nicely set eggs, set off by the bosky taste of the mushrooms.

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The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

roasted chileDedicated to my wonderful Nana Jean. I miss you more than words could ever express.

At last, we are in New Mexico! My home state is written about beautifully in this classic, The Milagro Beanfield War. Set in the mythical village of Milagro (there is actually a Milagro, NM, but the real town is nothing like the book’s version), it’s the story of Joe Mondragón and his fight for water rights, against big business, and in essence, it’s the story of the little guy fighting the system and – for once – winning.

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I loved the story of one man against the system – the whole David and Goliath theme – and could certainly relate it to much of what has gone on here in my state. New Mexico seems to fighting a battle of two clashing cultures – the culture of the heritage and history of the original families who settled here over 400 years ago, and the ongoing culture of the rest of America that continues to come here and make small but significant changes to a way of life that has been consistent for hundreds of years.

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I am all for progress and innovation, but it would be nice to have that without losing so much of our cultural heritage that is found increasingly in the small towns of the state. This book gave me a new appreciation for places and things that I’d grown up around and taken for granted.

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The movie version of this book was filmed in the Northern New Mexico, in a little town called Truchas, which was originally part of a larger Spanish land grant and in fact, because it is unincorporated, still operates under the same land grant laws that were in effect 300 years ago. You still see horses and cows on the streets and roadways, sharing the space with cars, tractors and bicycles.

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I am embarrassed to admit this, but I never learned to cook the New Mexico classics growing up. My grandmother, Nana Jean, who raised me for the most part, was a fantastic cook and the greatest maternal influence on my life and my cooking. But when I was young, I associated cooking with drudgery and obligation. You HAD to cook for your family and kids – not out of fun, out of requirement. As a result, I flat-out refused to learn to cook until I hit my early 30s and discovered Nigella Lawson, who made it look not only easy but glamorous and fun. From her, I learned to cook simple things and gradually moved into more complex dishes and flavors, and developed the palate that influences my cooking today.

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When my Nana Jean died a few years ago, she took much of my heart with her. It was only when I came out of the worst of my grieving that I was able to look at the homey cookbook she’d put together for all of her grandchildren, written in her own words and each with a handwritten dedication to each of us.

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When I started to read the recipes and methods I’d grown up with, I realized that I was ready to embrace her spirit and start making these dishes. And it’s appropriate that her spirit is what encourages me to continue doing what I’m doing, in honor not just of my love of books and cooking, but also, my love of my home state of New Mexico.

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In the book, the character Herbie Platt comes to Milagro to conduct scientific research, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with Amarante Cordova, an elderly man who believes in all the saints, and regularly leaves them offerings of tamales. It was an interesting juxtaposition of science and progress meeting tradition and history, and showing how they can indeed compliment one another. Herbie ends up falling for Stephanie, a local woman who runs a nursery school and has befriended him.  In one scene, while he is pondering his love for her, she shows up with a traditional New Mexico meal for him and ensures his devotion to the death, something we New Mexico women are good at doing with our cooking.

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“By this time Herbie loved her so much it hurt. Whereupon Stephanie appeared – miraculously! – with steaming enchiladas, a bottle of homemade beer, freshly baked bread, and locally grown grapes. They ate while a church bell languidly rang the Angelus.”

This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s classic recipe for green chile chicken enchiladas, with my own added twist.

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INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached in chicken broth and shredded
12 corn tortillas. I used white, but yellow is just fine, too.
Grapeseed or sunflower oil for frying
1 small onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can cream of chicken soup
1/2 cup of milk
1 carton of mushrooms – my twist and a darn good one, I must say
1.5 cups shredded cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses
1 cup roasted and peeled New Mexico green chile

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METHOD
Preheat the oven to 350F.

Saute the mushrooms, onions and garlic in a bit of oil until softened, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

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Heat the oil in a skillet until a drop of water makes it sizzle and pop. Fry each corn tortilla for 5 seconds on each side, just to soften them and make them a bit more pliable.

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Layer the corn tortillas in a casserole dish. I used my Nana’s old Pyrex dish that I remember her using for enchiladas.

Mix the shredded chicken with the sauteed mushrooms, onions and garlic.

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In a separate bowl, combine the two cans of soup with the milk, stir together, then add to the chicken and mushroom mixture. Stir, then mix in the chile in with the rest of the ingredients.

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Spoon a layer of the mixture over the corn tortillas. Add some of the shredded cheese. Layer more tortillas on top of that layer, then add another layer of the chicken mixture. Top with another generous layer of cheese.

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Bake for 30 minutes and savor the rapturous scent of chicken, mushrooms, cheese and green chile cooking together. Let cool for about 5 minutes, then eat.

I think my Nana would be proud!

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The Farolitos of Christmas by Rudolfo Anaya

Thanks to TB for the photography.

Welcome to December, and a month of holiday-themed books and food!

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Those who know me know my great and abiding love for the books of Rudolfo Anaya. He’s called the Godfather of Chicano literature for a reason, and it’s his novel Bless Me, Ultima, that catapulted him and our beloved home state of New Mexico, to global fame. He brought the life and times of New Mexicans to a worldwide stage, and showed that, no matter our background, heritage, race, gender, religion or beliefs, we all share the same hopes, fears, desires and hurts. Rudy is also a personal friend, an amazing humanitarian and human being, and as I always say jokingly, had I met him 40 years ago and were we closer in age, I would have married him.

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He writes in a mild, gentle manner that hides a voice of power and strength. He promotes love, standing up for yourself and those weaker than you, spirituality, passion, sensuality, and self-awareness. He is a poet, an educator, a shaman of words, and I adore the man, what can I say?

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Me and my idol.

One of his books I love reading around the holidays is The Farolitos of Christmas. The story is simple, a little girl named Luz, which means “light” in Spanish, is getting ready for Christmas in her small town of San Juan in Northern New Mexico, during WWII. She lives with her mother and her grandfather, with whom she is very close. Her grandfather, every year since before Luz was born, made the traditional farolitos, little woodpiles lit to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, and also to light the way of the children acting in the annual Nativity play called “Las Posadas.” Luz’s grandfather is recovering from the flu and is not strong enough to cut all the wood needed for the farolitos, so one day, while buying sugar for her mother’s biscochito cookies, Luz comes up with the ingenious method of pouring sand into paper bags, putting a candle inside each bag, and lighting it. That way, the wind cannot put out the light, the way is lit for the Christ Child, and Christmas can be celebrated at last.

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Side note: if you ever want to see two New Mexicans argue, ask them which word is correct: luminaria or farolito. Then sit back and enjoy the drama.

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Aside from being such a wonderful children’s book, this story is close to my heart because it portrays things that I have grown up around and been part of since childhood. The concept of farolitos, or luminarias, has been part of my heritage and culture always. It would not be Christmas in our family, in our state of New Mexico, and indeed in our Hispanic New Mexican culture, if we didn’t have the traditional holiday dishes of posole, tamales and biscochitos. And then, of course the theme of Luz’s closeness to her grandfather resonated powerfully, as I was raised by my Nana and was closer to her than perhaps any other person on earth. I miss her so very much.

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My beautiful Nana Jean

My Nana made the best biscochitos, though I’d guess every New Mexican says that about their grandmother. Being so close to my own, making her traditional Christmas cookie made me feel close to her. She was always the one who made Christmas special, decorating, making her holiday candy and cookies, putting up her lavish Nativity scene, decorating the tree with all the wonderful homemade ornaments she’d made over the years.

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With her gone, the heart has somewhat gone out of Christmas for me, though I try every year to rekindle that holiday spirit. I am particularly down this year, for a variety of reasons both personal and political, but what keeps me going is the reminder that, despite and because of everything, life does indeed go on. And so I reconnect with my own life force by doing the thing that always brings me joy – cooking for others. Though I do admit to shedding some tears as I read her recipe and got started. But that is life, is it not? Joy and pain, sometimes at the same time.

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This is the method that I used. It’s my Nana’s recipe, unaltered with the exception of the addition of 1/3 cup of amaretto, and only because I love the almond taste. But other than that, it’s our traditional family recipe. Because how can you improve on perfection?

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups Crisco
1 cup lard
3 large eggs, room temperature

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2 cups sugar
3 teaspoons anise flavoring
1 teaspoon vanilla
10 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder

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1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup whiskey
1/3 cup Amaretto
Sugar and cinnamon mixed together

METHOD
Cream the lard and shortening together.

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Add the eggs and sugar. Cream again.

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Add in the anise and vanilla. Mix together again.

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Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together in a separate bowl. Gradually incorporate it to the lard/egg mixture, slowly mixing together.

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Slowly pour in the whiskey and the Amaretto to the forming-dough, continuing to mix slowly until you have a nice, round ball of dough.

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Wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least an hour. When ready to bake, take out the dough, and heat the oven to 400F. Dust a counter or other surface with flour and start rolling out the dough.

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Cut out shapes with cookie cutters or with a coffee cup.

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Dip each cookie shape into the sugar-cinnamon mixture.

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Lay out on cookie sheets, and bake for 10 minutes, or until the cookies are golden-brown.

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Allow to cool, and enjoy. Or you could do what my Nana always did, and share generously with family and friends. ‘Tis the season, after all! These are delicious as snacks, served to guests with some tea, eaten with early-morning coffee, or eaten Italian-style dipped in red wine. Really, they are good at anytime of the day. But it’s not a New Mexico Christmas without homemade biscochitos.

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Here’s to my Nana Jean. Merry Christmas!

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Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Autumn is in the air. The mornings have that slight chill, and you need an extra blanket on the bed at night. The days are still sunny and warm, but in the evening, the sun dips below the horizon earlier and earlier, and the pervasive scent of leaves and smoke fills the air. It’s the time to curl up with a good book and enjoy the changing season. And speaking of good books, I’ve been rereading the “Little House on the Prairie” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder again, something I do every year as the season turns to fall. Comfort reading at its best!

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It’s funny to read something as an adult that you loved as a child. These books were my escape as a little girl. I loved Laura and her intelligence and her naughtiness, and the fact that she, too, loved to read. I used to think the vagabond life lived by her, her two sisters and her Ma and Pa sounded so exciting and fun. But then reading as an adult, I found myself thinking how painful walking on a bare wooden floor would be if you stepped on a splinter, how hard it must be to sweep a dirt floor, and how horrible it would be to have to spin and dye wool and make your own clothes. And I found myself feeling sorry for Ma, what with Pa constantly running off on adventures and moving them from a log cabin in Wisconsin to the prairies of Kansas to a mud house on a creek bank in Minnesota to – finally! – a nice home in South Dakota.

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In the seventh book of the series, “Little Town on the Prairie,” the family is (finally!) happily settled into their home in De Smet, SD, and all the girls are growing up. There are socials, parties, sleigh rides, in addition to the daily life chores of housework, caring for the farm animals,  and cooking. In fact, reading the food descriptions in this series are a great joy for me, as a home cook. On Thanksgiving, the entire town contributes to a communal Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a roasted pig with an apple in its mouth. There is food galore, pumpkin pies and beans and casseroles and cornbread and pickles and all sorts of goodies, and each table has its own delicious chicken pie.

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“In all their lives, Laura and Carrie had never seen so much food. Those tables were loaded…….there were heaped dishes of mashed potatoes and of mashed turnips……there were plates piled high with golden squares of corn bread…….there were cucumber pickles and beet pickles and green tomato pickles………on each table was a long, wide, deep pan of chicken pie, with steam rising through the slits in its flaky crust.”

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I love chicken pot pie, and have always wanted to try making one from scratch, piecrust and all. But I’ve always wanted to make cornbread, too, so I decided to combine them into one yummy recipe, in homage of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the changing season.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my memories of chicken pot pie and all the goodies inside. The cornbread crust came from one of my Nana Jean’s recipe cards I found stuck inside her old cookery book from the 1950s……..a little bit of happy serendipity for me. And the beauty of a cornbread topping is that you don’t have to knead it into a dough. You just spread it on top of the pie filling and bake.

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INGREDIENTS

For the pie filling:
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached and shredded

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2 potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
12 baby carrots, cut into small circles

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1 and 1/2 ribs of celery, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cup frozen peas

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1 medium-sized onion, chopped
Olive oil and butter for sauteeing
2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 and 1/2 cups flour
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup lowfat milk
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or more depending on your taste)

For the cornmeal crust:
1 and 1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 cup lowfat milk
1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg, beaten

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METHOD
In a saucepan filled with 1/2 cup of chicken stock and 1 tablespoon of butter, cook the potatoes, celery and carrots until soft, but not mushy, up to 30 minutes, but check them for texture. Add the onions and cook another 5 minutes. Add the frozen peas during the last 2-3 minutes of cooking. Put this mixture onto a plate and set aside.

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In the same pan, heat the olive oil and a bit more butter. Add the flour, a little at a time, to the the oil and butter, and stir to ensure all the flour is absorbed. This part is important, because you don’t want that floury taste. Gradually add the nutmeg as well, a bit at a time.

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Gradually incorporate the milk and the chicken stock, alternating between the two, slowly pouring into the flour and oil. Whisk vigorously with a metal whisk, creating a roux. The roux will create that thick sauce that characterizes the inside of a chicken pot pie, thickening as you keep adding liquid. Rouxs do take awhile, so be prepared to keep whisking for a good half-hour. Add in the bouillon paste as you’re whisking, and keep tasting to see if the flour taste has disappeared.

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Add the bouillon cube, the cooked potatoes, carrots, celery and peas to this mixture, and stir well to mix. Cook everything together for a couple of minutes. Add the shredded, cooked chicken, mix through and let heat through one last time. Cover and set aside.

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Heat the oven to 400F, and get on with making the cornbread crust.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, salt and baking powder. In yet another small bowl, mix together the milk, oil and egg yolk, then slowly add it to the dry ingredients. The batter will be lumpy, but that’s the idea.

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Spray the inside of 4-6 ramekins with olive oil spray, then fill about 3/4 of each with the chicken mixture.

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Top with the somewhat lumpy cornbread batter, as evenly as you can. Place the filled ramekins on a baking tray and pop into the oven to cook for about 15 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when the formerly lumpy batter has puffed up and gotten golden-brown on top.

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Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then eat happily, and be thankful you didn’t have to go out and pick the potatoes or pluck the chicken, like you lived in a little house on a prairie or something.

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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Dedicated to my dear friend Kate Parker. “Well, this is Italian rain!”

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I came across the book The Enchanted April while browsing on Amazon.com one afternoon when I should have been working. Having loved the film so much, I decided the time had come to see how faithful to the book it had been. The book cover was also dreamily beautiful, showing the cypress trees which Tuscany is so famous for, that I had to have it. Yes, I judge books by their covers. Sue me.

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The book is somewhat dated in its language and structure, and I actually found that I preferred the film version. Surprising, because I usually find film adaptations subpar compared to the book original (The Lord of the Rings trilogy being a notable exception.) The premise, four dissatisfied London women, in the depressing time after WWI, decide to share the expense of renting a castle in Italy for the month of April. Their home lives, for various reasons, are somewhat unhappy and this is their escape to try and find peace and happiness. Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot make the initial move to rent the castle, and invite Lady Caroline Dester (nicknamed Scrap) and Mrs. Fisher, two upper-class ladies to join them, without realizing their higher-echelon-of-society place assures Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline that they can take over the castle. So they do, leading to some very funny misunderstandings.

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I did enjoy the book, though. It’s a wonderful escape, with the lush descriptions of flowers and the sea, and the interactions between the four women make for some genuinely amusing reading. I think why I liked this book so much (and obviously why I love the film so much) is because it reminded me of my trip to Italy with my wonderful friend Kate, a few years ago. We were both desperate to escape the chill and the rain of England, where I landed and where she lived at the time, but when we got to Italy, all we found was……yes, you guessed it. Rain! It’s so funny now, but at the time we were both quite peeved that the rain would destroy our holiday! So I kept reminding Kate, just as Lottie tells Rose when they arrive in a downpour, “well, this is Italian rain!” Because, of course, Italian rain is so much more picturesque! It still makes me laugh to remember.

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Lady Caroline – Scrap – just wants to be left in peace. A society beauty, she is used to being gawked at and constantly surrounded by admirers, and simply wants to be somewhere where she isn’t always grabbed at, because, as she puts it “I don’t want to talk or think or constantly be the center of attention. You know how that is, right?”  Not really, Lady C., but I’m sure it’s rough. One afternoon, the four ladies sit down to a beautiful al fresco tea with macaroons, which are much loved by Lady Caroline, and the scene was described so beautifully that I was inspired to give them a whirl. Not being the world’s greatest baker, I decided against the fancy French macarons with their beautiful array of colors, and instead opted for chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons. No one here complained, though.

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“It appeared that Mrs. Wilkins had not been seen since breakfast. Mrs. Arbuthnot thought she had probably gone for a picnic. Scrap missed her. She ate the enormous macaroons, the best and biggest she had ever come across, in silence. Tea without Mrs. Wilkins was dull; and Mrs. Arbuthnot had that fatal flavour of motherliness about her……of coaxing one to eat.”

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This is the super easy method that worked for me, based on Once Upon a Chef’s wonderful recipe, tweaked slightly by me. As usual. ‘Cause that’s just what I do.

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INGREDIENTS
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
14 oz bag of sweetened coconut flakes

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1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond essence
1 teaspoon cinnamon

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1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup rum

METHOD

As with any baking, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature before you start, particularly the eggs. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Using your most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer, whisk the egg whites and the salt until they are fluffy and stiff, and hold a point. This is what you want.

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In another bowl, combine the coconut, the milk, and the vanilla, almond and cinnamon. Mix well and set aside.

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Fold the fluffy egg whites into the coconut mixture, making sure to get some air into the batter. This will make them light and give them texture, as well as adding to the flavor.

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Scoop about a tablespoon measure each onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Don’t put them too closely together, or they’ll meld together or burn.

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Pop into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When the tops are golden brown, take them out of the oven and allow to cool.

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In a metal saucepan, very gently heat the heavy cream just until bubbles start forming around the sides. Turn off the heat, put in the chocolate chips, cover and leave for 10 minutes.

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Stir together and witness the alchemy of cooking when you see the luscious chocolate ganache form. Add the rum, stir together and let cool slightly.

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Dip in the bottom of each coconut macaroon, and when each one has a nice, chocolaty bottom, put in the refrigerator to cool thoroughly.

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Drizzle the remaining chocolate artistically (and you can see how well I did it!) over the macaroons, then chill in the refrigerator for an hour, so the chocolate can set.

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Eat, in true repressed British style, with a cup of strong Earl Grey tea, or enjoy as an afternoon snack with a glass of wine. Much more Italian that way, I think.

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With the rum flavoring in the chocolate, and the additions of the almond and cinnamon, these macaroons have a lovely, exotic taste that hints at a vacation by the sea, preferably in an Italian villa.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

Thanks to JP for the photography.

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. I started mine on Saturday morning and did the final rinse and drain Sunday morning. 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. Like this. 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.”

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

One of the reasons I started this blog, beyond the joy of combining my loves of reading and cooking, was also my desire to travel, whether physically or through the pages of books. I wanted to challenge myself as well, to cook food that was outside my comfort zone.

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I’ve always wanted to gain a better understanding of both the history of China and its cuisine, however, and when one day I discovered this book The Ghost Bride, in the bargain bin at Bookworks, my favorite independent bookstore, and having no new books to read for a whole three days (a horror, let me tell you), I bought it, and proceeded to devour it in one sitting.

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It’s a very unexpected book. The premise, a young lady named Li Lan of a once wealthy but now impoverished family in colonial Malacca, is asked by her father to become a “ghost bride” to a young man who has recently died. A ghost bride is a young lady who marries a man who has died, usually who was young and had never been married before death. The idea is that the spirit will be placated by being given a bride and will not haunt his family after death. Li Lan initially balks at the idea (as we all probably would), but then is invited to the home of the dead Lim Tian Ching, whose mother had the idea of marrying his spirit to the living Li Lan. That’s when things start getting interesting.

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I consider this book to be educational as well as entertaining. I learned about Malacca and the Chinese population who lived there among numerous other ethnic and religious groups, a fascinating history of the Chinese culture and their diverse spiritual belief system, which also strongly influences their belief in the afterlife. Ghosts and spirits abound in this book, demons and the shades of people who have not passed yet into The Great Beyond, whether it be heaven or hell. The shadow world resembles the government of the time, structured, bureaucratic, with hierarchies of spirits and ghosts who build opulent houses and have their own caste system, just as the living do. Li Lan is unexpectedly cast into this shadow world when she tries to escape the spiritual advances of Lim Tian Ching, and finds herself on the adventure of a lifetime.

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Speaking of food, in the spirit world of Malacca, spirits cannot eat until the living offer them food and a prayer in the living world. Li Lan is starving there, until her family’s cook, Wong, who has been able to see spirits since he was a child, takes pity on her and dedicates his bowl of laksa to her. Laksa, this delicious sounding dish, is a type of soup that has elements of curry, but is loaded with lots of other goodies so it makes a full and easy street food dish. So what the hell – pardon the pun – I made the laksa and some pineapple cupcakes. Pineapple tarts are mentioned as a nyonya – a dessert – but being unable to find several of the key ingredients for making Malaysian-style tarts, I made cupcakes instead, using the recipe from Baked By An Introvert, being a glutton for punishment by cooking and baking in this muggy summer heat. Oh well. Keeps me out of trouble.

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“Can I have noodles?” Old Wong looked indignant. “Don’t you know that they never wash the bowl and chopsticks but simply pass them along to the next customer? I can make you far better noodles than that.” “But I can’t go home right now.” “You want to get sick?” I couldn’t help smiling at the absurdity of this. “You don’t know……no noodles for you. Further on there’s a laksa stall. We’ll go there, not this kind of dirty place.”

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this terrific recipe from Feasting at Home, another excellent food blog. Along with tofu (which I loathe and despise), something called fish balls are traditionally added to the laksa, and as entertaining as the thought was to tell my friends that yes, the balls of a fish were part of this week’s blog, I decided against it. I’m nice like that.

INGREDIENTS
2 packets of laksa paste (available in any Asian market or online)
3 tablespoons of grapeseed oil
Chicken bouillon cube
2 cups of chicken broth
1 14-oz. can of coconut milk
4 chicken thighs, cubed

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12-15 raw, peeled and deveined shrimp
1 lb rice noodles
2 cups fresh bean sprouts

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1 large lime, cut into quarters
Handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Fried shallots (also available in any Asian market or online)
1 hard-boiled egg, cut lengthwise in half

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METHOD
Heat the laksa paste, the oil and the bouillon cube until the paste begins to soften. You’ll smell the chilies and the shrimp in the paste. Divine!

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Add the chicken broth and the coconut milk and bring to a gentle simmer. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes, to allow the flavors to combine.

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Add the cubed chicken thighs and cook for another 15-20 minutes, to ensure they are fully cooked through.

In another pot, bring lightly salted water to a boil. Add the rice noodles and allow to cook for 30 seconds or so. They won’t take long at all. Drain and set aside.

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After 20 minutes of the chicken simmering, add a squeeze of lime juice to the laksa broth. Add the shrimp and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the shrimp are nice and pink. Don’t overcook, because the shrimp will be rubbery. Gross.

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Ladle the broth and meat into bowls, add the rice noodles, and garnish each bowl with the cilantro, a handful of the bean sprouts, another squeeze of lime, the fried shallots, and half the hard boiled egg.

You can eat this in the traditional manner, slurping up noodles with chopsticks if you can manage them, and spooning up the broth. You see I have my chopsticks for the terminally incompetent here.

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Delicious! It’s spicy, tart from the limes, pungent from the cilantro, and tastes of the sea with the laksa paste. So good, healthy and, even though it’s hot outside, it’s very refreshing to eat. This one’s a keeper.

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The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe was always my literary boyfriend, even from a young age. I remember reading Edgar Allan Poe’s Complete Tales and Poems as a little girl and being simultaneously freaked out and enchanted. He scared the living daylights out of me, but I still read his stories.

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I remember being terrified of black cats after coming to the end of that particular short story. His writings have always fascinated me, and in fact, I wrote one of my best undergrad essays on the architecture in his stories and how they reflected the inner chaos and turmoil of his twisted protagonists.

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My father, about whom I’ve written previously, and who would celebrate his 69th birthday today, loved to read also and had a collection of leather-bound classic books, in one of which the short stories of Poe were collected. I inherited these when he died, and started re-reading them earlier this month, in conjunction with finding Lore Podcast, a web-based podcast about dark, creepy history. It was the combination of rereading Poe and listening to this genuinely eerie podcast, that inspired me to create a dish for the blog. But, if you’re into scary stories, or simply enjoy the darker side of history, check out Lore.

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Back to Edgar’s tales. Poe has always had a special place in my heart. His dark, dramatic, romantic, Gothic style always spoke to my dark side. His over-the-top declamatory way of writing, particularly in poems such as “Annabel Lee” or, of course “The Raven,” and in two of my absolute favorite stories in the world, “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” seemed to always be pointing to that shadow world beyond the veil separating us in this one. And then of course, how could anyone forget those classic Vincent Price movie versions of Poe’s works?

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“The Pit and the Pendulum” was always the most horrifying to me, in the sense of actually seeing what the dreadful fate of the story narrator is. I mean, can it get any worse than to be trapped by the Inquisition in a pit, in near darkness, to be tortured with no food and then teased with meat and drink before coming across this instrument of torture designed not only to slice you in half but to also make sure you can watch it descending upon you, inch by terrifying inch? It’s this ability to make you squirm with unease and fright, such as in my other favorite tale, “The Cask of Amontillado” that makes him a genius of the dark side.

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With the Spanish references in both “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” I decided to recreate the passage in the first tale, in which the narrator finds a table of meat, and leads him to a more terrifying discovery, and led me to deciding to make Spanish-spiced pork tenderloin medallions in a mushroom-cream and – you guessed it – Amontillado sherry sauce!

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“I saw, to my horror, that the pitcher had been removed. I say to my horror, for I was consumed with intolerable thirst. This thirst it appeared to be the design of my persecutors to stimulate; for the food in the dish was meat pungently seasoned.”

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe from finecooking.com, but as usual, with a few of my own tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
1 1-lb pork tenderloin, cut into 1-inch thick medallions
2 tablespoons of cornstarch, divided
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of butter
2 cups sliced mushrooms, any variety
1 shallot, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced with a Microplane grater
1 teaspoon each of dried sage, dried parsley and dried thyme
Tablespoon of Spanish smoked paprika, or pimenton
1/2 cup Amontillado sherry
1/2 cup of chicken or beef stock
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 cup heavy cream

METHOD
Flatten your medallions a little bit with the flat side of the knife. Lightly dredge each medallion in 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, on either side, and shake off any excess.

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Heat the olive oil and butter together slowly in a large pan. Gently fry 4-5 medallions at a time, about 3 minutes a side. Being somewhat thin, they will cook quickly so watch them and turn when looking brown. Set aside on a platter.

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In the pan juices, cook the shallot and garlic. Honestly, what would we do without these kitchen staples, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a savory dish I’ve ever cooked that didn’t have one or both of these flavorsome ingredients. Truly gifts from God,they are.

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Add the sliced mushrooms, your three dried herbs, the smoked paprika/pimenton and a splosh of the amontillado, just a splosh to keep it moist. Stir together and cook another 5 minutes.

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In a mixing cup, whisk together the other tablespoon of cornstarch, the remainder of the sherry, the chicken stock, and the Dijon mustard. Add to the veg in the pan, and simmer for about 5 minutes more.

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Add the pork medallions, then slowly pour in the heavy cream, stir to combine, cover and simmer gently for 20-25 minutes. Check a few times to make sure the cream doesn’t curdle or burn. Oh that heavenly scent!

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While that’s cooking, you can prepare any side dish you want. I love green beans, and I remember the “habichuelas” that my Nana Jean used to cook, with bacon and onion and, oh they were so good! When I lived in Spain for that marvelous semester, I housed with a wonderful woman named Maria Carmen who was a professional cook at a private girl’s school in Pamplona, and one of her specialities was “judias con tomates.” In both their honors, I combined their methods and made a Spanish-style dish of green beans, slowly cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes, salt, Spanish olive oil, a squeeze of anchovy paste, and flaked almonds, to go with the Spanish-spiced pork medallions. Delicious and, to me anyway, redolent of Spain.

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But of course, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.