Johannes Cabal The Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

It’s rare for me to find a book that I love on as many levels as I do Johannes Cabal The Necromancer. It’s got a hero who sold his soul to Satan in order to gain knowledge of the occult and how to bring people back from the dead. It’s got an evil, yet hilarious, circus – very Ray Bradbury meets AHS: Freak Show. It’s got a vampire brother who loves the ladies. It’s got elements of horror, fantasy, Gothic romance, steampunk, a whiff of H.P. Lovecraftishness, a very sarcastic Satan, and tons of witty, black British humor. Oh, and in order to get into Hell, you must fill out paperwork. In triplicate times infinity. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always pictured Hell to be place teeming with bureaucracy. It’s not compared to government for nothing, you know.

Johannes Cabal is a necromancer of some little infamy. Yes, that’s how he describes himself. He runs around in a black suit with a black hat, smoked glasses, a Gladstone bag containing his necromancy tools, various spells and potions, and of course, a gun. Because what else would a necromancer need besides a gun? Anyway, as the book opens, Johannes finds himself in Hell to demand Satan return his soul, as he needs it to continue his research into raising the dead, though not for the reasons you’d might expect.

Johannes Cabal is kind of an anti-hero but he is so deadpan, so witty and so unintentionally hilarious; and even though he raises the dead for a living, was responsible for turning his brother Horst into a vampire, and has no problem at all with swindling innocent people into selling their souls – part of his wager with The King of Hell to get his soul back – he is actually very lovable. I always enjoy when a writer is so talented that he can make an otherwise monstrous character into one that we love and root for. Tom Ripley is one such example, but Johannes Cabal is in a class all by himself. I guess the best way to describe him is that he’s soulless but he’s not heartless.

The characters are a motley crew of monsters, carnival attractions such as Layla the Latex Lady, a carnival manager literally made out of a bone, murdering magicians, swindling teenagers with attitude, a family of inbred and insanely wealthy misfits, a tough police detective trying to put all the pieces together, his beautiful daughter who ends up inadvertently helping Johannes Cabal break his contract with The Big Guy Downstairs, hilariously-named demons (Ragtag Slyboots, Despoiler of Milk and Tangler of Shoelaces, anyone?) and any number of snarky, witty, and grumpy observations by the necromancer himself.

Characters from the Johannes Cabal universe. From left: Satan, Frank Barrow, Leonie Barrow, Johannes Cabal, Horst Cabal, Bones the Carnival Manager, Dennis and Denzil, and Layla the Latex Lady. Image courtesy of AgarthianGuide on Deviantart.com. Here’s the link for more of her Johannes Cabal images: https://www.deviantart.com/agarthanguide/art/Johannes-Cabal-the-Necromancer-Linup-590426600

Toward the beginning of the book, once Johannes has made his Faustian wager with The Devil and goes back to Earth to start the circus, he finds he needs the assistance of his vampiric brother Horst. Horst, you see, was locked in the Druin family crypt several years before by Johannes himself as part of his necromaniacal researches. The Druin family, the aforementioned inbred and wealthy family, are all gradually picked off, one by one, by a mysterious aunt – and Horst’s crypt companion – who had a taste for bloodsucking and killed her psychotic nephews and nieces in some very gruesome and funny ways. Beatrice’s particular peccadillo involved creating the world’s largest museum of peas, so you can well understand how and why she came to her demise.

Then, one morning, the surviving family woke up and found themselves short one for breakfast. They discovered Beatrice tied by her ankles to the chandelier. Her expression was one of purest horror and she was quite dead. There were a lot of peas in the room. The post-mortem discovered another five pounds of them forced down her throat, jamming her esophagus shut and clogging her airways.

Yes, I was again inspired to cook a dish by a passage about someone’s gruesome death. I’m kind of cool that way. Anyway, mushy peas are one of those good old-fashioned classic British recipes that have basic ingredients and yet are so delicious. When I was in London a few years back, I fell in love with fish and chips served with a side of mushy peas, and when I came home, I started making them for myself. Aside from the fact that they are dead easy, you’d be surprised at the number of people who think I’m a culinary genius for coming up with that method! I generally don’t clear up the confusion. 🙂 Classic British mushy peas call for using mature marrowfat peas, but I just channel my inner Nigella Lawson here and use a bag of frozen peas. They’re just as impressive and tasty.

INGREDIENTS
2 12-oz bags of frozen peas
5 cloves of garlic, in their skins
2 tablespoons salted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat a large saucepan of water and bring to a boil, and sprinkle in some salt. Cook the peas and the garlic cloves in the boiling water for about 5 minutes, then drain.

Peel the skins off the garlic cloves.

In the same pan, add the butter and toss in the peas and garlic cloves.

Add the heavy cream, and using a potato masher, mash the peas and garlic with the butter. You can use a food processor if you want, but the idea is to have a mix of mashed peas and semi-solid peas so I find it easier to get the right texture this way.

Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed before serving. Delicious! I served with a nice baked salmon fillet and it was perfect with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. And nary a pea was to be found stuffed down my esophagus, either!

Strange Highways: The Black Pumpkin by Dean Koontz

October is such a great month, isn’t it? The brutal heat of summer is over and the crispness of autumn is upon us, we’re getting ready for the holiday season, and it all kicks off with the creepy fun of Halloween. Being a former Goth chick, I still have a fondness in my heart for all things dark and eerie, and that includes literature. Each October, I blog all month long books that fall easily into the horror/supernatural genre and we’re continuing that fine family tradition by starting this month’s blog posts off with an anthology of short stories by my second-favorite horror writer of all time, Dean Koontz. (Yes, Stephen King is my numero uno when it comes to authors who write horror and I’m sure that surprises no one.)

The thing about Dean Koontz is that he writes in such a lyrical way about both the beauty and horror of the world. His characterizations are always fascinating, though he does tend to have fairly black-and-white characters, something I’ve seen more of over the years even as his writing has evolved. I don’t mind that, and in fact, it can be refreshing to have those clearly delineated lines of good vs. evil sharply drawn out, though occasionally Koontz’s characters can come across as almost a parody of whichever side they’re on. This is definitely the case in the short story that’s the focus of today’s post.

The Black Pumpkin is the second short story in the collection titled Strange Highways. I actually considered blogging the eponymous first story of the collection, which is itself a strange, dreamlike story of second chances, the terror we sometimes find only within our families, and the left-hand path- and I highly recommend it because it’s genuinely creepy and tense – but I opted instead to go with The Black Pumpkin because it has such a darkly humorous ending and I can’t resist a little giggle of amusement to enhance the flavor of fear.

The tale is short, a mere 19 pages long, and tells the story of Tommy Sutzmann, a young boy trapped in a family of liars, bullies and asshats. He is the lone decent individual, contrasting with his nasty older brother Frank, and his two politician parents. Well, with politicians for parents, are you surprised? Anyway, the parents take the two boys to a pumpkin patch to pick pumpkins to decorate for an upcoming Halloween party. Tommy is drawn to a particularly gruesomely carved black pumpkin, and the very scary pumpkin carver lets him have it for whatever he thinks it’s worth. Tommy’s brother rudely gives the man a nickel for it when Tommy refuses to buy it, but then the scary old man warns that the black pumpkin always gives what is deserved to those who earn it. I’m sure you can guess the rest when the pumpkin comes to life on Halloween night. We’ve got mayhem, murder, and a hilarious final couple of lines when Tommy tells the black pumpkin, after he’s eaten Tommy’s parents and brother:

“You missed a bit,” and pointed to the floor beside his brother’s nightstand. The beast looked at Frank’s severed hand. “Ahhh,” said The Black Pumpkin, snatching up the hand and stuffing that grisly morsel into its mouth.

Yes, I was inspired to create a culinary treat by a gruesome tale of a murderous pumpkin coming to life and going on a killing spree. I know, I know, I’ve been told about this twisted side of myself many times over, and you know what? It’s not going away! 🙂 Pumpkin is, of course, the ultimate symbol of this time of year, representing as it does the changing of the season, the colors of autumn leaves, and is the precursor to jack-o-lanterns that dot our neighborhood houses on All Hallow’s Eve. So I was inspired to make this fall-themed savory pumpkin casserole. Yum!

INGREDIENTS
2 cups wild rice, cooked in chicken stock
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached or roasted
Large handful of fresh sage leaves
2 cups of pumpkin puree
2 generous tablespoons of garlic powder
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
1 cup goat cheese
Salt and pepper
1 cup Italian-style breadcrumbs

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F. Cut the cooked chicken into chunks and season with salt and pepper.

Slice the sage into thin ribbons.

Add the pumpkin puree to the chicken, and mix in the garlic, the sage, the Parmesan and the goat cheese.

Mix well and taste for seasoning before adding any more salt and pepper.

Mix the wild rice with the chicken and pumpkin mixture, then put into a glass baking dish. Top with the bread crumbs and the few remaining bits of goat cheese, then bake for 45 minutes.

Delicious! Rich yet delicate, with the sharpness of the cheese contrasting beautifully with the mellow sage, the savory chicken and the sweet pumpkin. A perfect Halloween meal, with hopes that The Black Pumpkin doesn’t come knocking on your door tonight!

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-García

I’m as guilty as the next person of judging. I judge wine by the label on the bottle, musical artists by genre, and of course, books by their covers. In this case, can you blame me? The cover for Mexican Gothic is stunningly beautiful and hits me on all my levels: aesthetic, moody, mysterious, and colorful. Combined with the word “Gothic,” you’re damn right I pre-ordered this months in advance and devoured it in 6 hours when it finally arrived. It was well worth the wait.

The gist of the book is thus: Noemi is a wealthy socialite living the life in 1950s Mexico. She’s a beautiful and intelligent woman whose chief problem is that she lives in a time and a place where people can’t believe a woman can be both, so she compensates by putting on a bored persona. But inside, she is ready for something more. When her father gets a urgent letter from Catalina, Noemi’s recently-married cousin, indicating she is in danger in her new marriage, he sends Noemi to the town of High Place to find out what is going on and to bring Catalina home if necessary. Not so fast, though. Catalina’s in-laws and new husband are what you’d call shady.

Catalina has married into the very wealthy and extremely weird Doyle family, and boy, do they put the “fun” in “family dysfunction.” The family patriarch, Howard, is beyond creepy. He is somewhere between 90 and death, and is pervertedly fascinated with the beautiful Noemi. Catalina’s husband, Virgil, is handsome and flirtatious toward Noemi, and she is both sexually drawn to him and repulsed by him at the same time. Florence, Virgil’s sister, runs the household like a military commander, not allowing Noemi to do or say anything. You can imagine how well that goes over with a young, independent and intelligent heroine like Noemi.

And then there’s the youngest son, Francis, whose interest in botany, plants and growing fungi – namely mushrooms – are pivotal pieces of the book’s plot. Noemi finds herself becoming friends with Francis and the longer she stays in High Place, the more she starts to be affected by the house, with terrifying dreams and visions, and she starts to suspect that something very weird and very scary is happening. It’s not actually difficult to figure out what the source of the visions and hallucinations are, but it’s part of the fun in reading this beautifully-written and atmospheric novel.

This is a wonderful book that combines mystery with Gothic romance, eugenics with some creepy Mexican folklore, some really great horror elements including ghosts, visions of blood, terrifying dreams, and a unique take on the haunted house trope that makes for some genuinely riveting reading. It actually reminded me quite a lot of the film Crimson Peak, that eerie movie by Guillermo del Toro, with similar elements of hallucinations, incestuous relations, and just that overall sense of mystery and doom.

I’d consider this book more of a slow burn than one of non-stop, intense horror. The horror is there, all right, but it’s more of a low simmer, gradually escalating, grotesque, Lovecraftian, sickening horror that creeps up on you the further into the mystery you get, until you realize you’re trapped with Noemi there with no avenue of escape. I like the intense terror as much as any horror fan, but I really enjoyed the slow build toward the final unraveling of the mystery surrounding the Doyle family.

As with many of the other books I read, I found myself culinarily inspired by a passage that isn’t necessarily a food reference. when Noemi comes across Francis foraging in, of all places, the family cemetery! Hey, whatever floats your boat, right, but it also made me start thinking about what to make with those good ol’, fungus among us, mushrooms!

He glanced down, nodding, looking at his basket. Now that he was with her, she had regained her levity, and she peered curiously at him. “What do you have there?” she asked, pointing at the basket. “I’ve been collecting mushrooms.” “Mushrooms? At a cemetery?” “Sure. They’re all around.” “As long as you don’t plan to make them into a salad.” “What would be wrong with that?” “Only the thought of them growing over dead things.” “But then mushrooms always grow over dead things in a way.”

Yes, I was inspired to make a something from this passage about ‘shrooms growing over dead things. Well, I’m strange like that. Anyway, being that the book was set in Mexico, and that it’s also green chile season here in my home state of New Mexico, I decided a tasty recipe of mushroom, chorizo, and roasted corn queso fundido with homemade tortilla chips was on the menu. And the best part? I got to roast the green chile and the corn outside on my charcoal grill in my new backyard, thus breaking it in! In a manner of speaking. 🙂

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 red onion
6 cloves of garlic
1 lb chorizo sausage, squeezed out of the casing
1 lb white mushrooms, sliced
1 lb bella mushrooms, sliced
1 lb Monterey Jack cheese
1 lb Muenster cheese
1 lb queso fresco
6 Anaheim chile peppers, roasted and peeled
2 fresh ears of corn, still in the husks, roasted and cooled
1 dozen corn tortillas

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven, saute the onion and garlic until soft, then add the chorizo and saute another 10 minutes.

Add in the mushrooms and saute again for another 10 minutes.

Cut the roasted corn kernels from the cobs, then add to the mushrooms and chorizo mixture. I actually did this using a Bundt pan, which was suggested to me by my friend and sous-chef Krista, and it was the best idea ever!

Chop the roasted green chile and add to the other ingredients in the pan.

Cube the cheeses into small pieces and add their gooey, melting goodness to the pan.

Mix everything together and cook on low, covered, so that the cheeses melt and get that lovely, unctuous texture that make your mouth water.

While the cheese is melting, heat the broiler in your oven and slice the corn tortillas into fourths, put on a baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes until they get golden and crispy. Let cool.

Serve the piping-hot, meltingly gooey queso fundido with the tortilla chips and devour. Sooooo delicious, rich and very decadent. Eat this on a day when you haven’t eaten another thing and have gotten in a good hour of cardio. It’s well worth it, and the mushrooms will only make you have visions of heavenly deliciousness!

REPOST – Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

I originally posted this blog in May 2017.  Today marks two years from the date that my idol Anthony Bourdain died. One of my biggest culinary influences, as well as someone who changed my worldview in general, I loved, respected and honored his work and who he was as a human being. I hope you enjoy this repost. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

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

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

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

2017-05-15 21.23.48_resized.jpgHeat the remaining two tablespoons of olive oil in a nonstick skillet, over medium heat. Add the shallot, garlic, and fennel, and cook about 5-7 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and let cook while you prepare the tuna.

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

I found The Fifth Gospel to be quite a great read, fast-paced and adventurous, but with a fascinating historical and Biblical premise as the storyline. It’s simple – a Greek Catholic priest living in The Vatican must defend his brother, also a Greek Catholic priest but one attached to the Pope’s staff, who is accused of murder. The victim? An artist who recreated the Shroud of Turin for a Papal art show and made a discovery that could possibly turn the Catholic Church upside down.

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It’s very well written, heavy on Church history (which I like) and yet has a human side in the main character of Father Alex Andreou, whose desperate efforts to prove his brother innocent are matched only by his dedication to the Greek Catholic church, raising his son Peter, and hoping his estranged wife Mona will return to them both. She does, mysteriously one evening, and when she reunites with Peter, she brings dinner with her, in that clever way women have of knowing that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

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“Mona reaches into a plastic bag by her feet and says ‘I brought dinner.’ ‘A gift,’ she clarifies. ‘From Nonna.’ Peter’s maternal grandmother. I recoil. Peter looks at the Tupperware and says…….’My favorite pizza is margherita.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ Mona says, crestfallen. ‘All I brought is some cacio e pepe.’ Tonnarelli with cheese sauce. The devil inside me smiles. Her mother’s version of the dish will be too peppery for Peter. A fitting introduction to the mother-in-law I always found to be an acquired taste.”

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This post came about, in part, from an IM conversation I had with my friend Luca Marchiori of Chestnuts and Truffles. Luca is not only my cooking hero, he’s a marvelous chef, a talented food and travel writer, and takes the most wonderful photographs. He also lives in Italy and gets to travel around that beautiful country ALL THE TIME. Is it any wonder I want to be him?

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Anyway, I’ve gotten in the habit (annoyingly to Luca, I’m sure!) of asking his advice about the week’s upcoming blog post and my thoughts on how to make my recipe unique. Cacio e pepe is a traditional pasta dish that features three major ingredients – pasta, pepper and cheese. You really can’t go wrong with that trio, but I wanted to add my own unique twist on the recipe, so I asked Luca what he thought of perhaps a margherita-style cacio e pepe, combining two food descriptions in the passage above.

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Luca didn’t think combining two separate pasta dishes into one was the best way to go, and when I mentioned wanting to make something one’s own, he talked about the writing of Philippe Conticini, who was, in Luca’s words, “a great patissiere who had the philosophy that when you were revising classic dishes you should make sure you keep all the original ingredients and not add more. Change the way they are put together rather than leaving out or adding.”

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Something to consider. So, rather than trying to make it into something unique, I decided to challenge myself by simply recreating this classic recipe, and having roasted tomatoes on the side. Not IN the dish, Luca, so calm down. But as a garnish. And guess what? It worked!

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this article from Business Weekly, featuring the late, great, notorious Anthony Bourdain – my future husband – in Rome. I mean, Bourdain, Italy and pasta – the holy trinity, in my book. (And very fitting for today’s post!)

index

INGREDIENTS
1 lb bucatini pasta
1 tablespoon of butter
3 tablespoons grated fresh Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons Pecorino cheese
Generous amount of ground black pepper

METHOD
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook for about 6 minutes, until the pasta is almost cooked, but not quite. You’ll see why in a minute.

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One of the best cooking tips I’ve ever gotten in my life was to save some of the boiling water that the pasta has cooked in, and add a bit to whatever sauce you are making. The starch in the water helps the sauce to emulsify and thicken somewhat, and also adds to the dense flavor. So keep about a cupful of the pasta water before draining the pasta. But do keep some of the water on the noodles. Anna del Conte, the matriarch of Italian cooking and food writing, calls this “la goccia,” which means “a drop” to keep the pasta moist.

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In a separate saucepan, add the butter and a very generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Melt the butter gently over low heat, then add the starchy pasta water. Swirl around to mix.

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Add the cooked and drained pasta to the saucepan with the pasta water, butter and pepper. Stir around with tongs to finish cooking the pasta, about 2-3 minutes more. Taste to see if the pasta is al dente, with a small bite but cooked.

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Remove from the heat, and add your cheeses to the hot pasta mixture. Stir again to mix and meld all the cheeses. You DO NOT want your cheese to be in lumps, which is why you want to do it when the pasta is hot off the stove. Just stir and swirl with your tongs and pretend you’re one of those bad-ass Italian chefs who have that technique down pat.

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Place a swirly pile in a shallow bowl, and sprinkle over more Parmeggiano, and add another generous sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper. Et voila! Cacio e pepe alla Romana!

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Serve with roasted tomatoes on the side, which are simple to make. Slice the tomatoes thinly, and sprinkle over some slivered garlic. Toss with olive oil and dried basil, and roast at 425 for 30-35 minutes. Remove, let cool for about 15 minutes, then sprinkle over a dash of balsamic vinegar. Salt and pepper as you like.

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A dish fit for a Pope!

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado

The connection between food and sex is one I looked at in one of my very first blog posts, which you can read here if you’re so inclined. That connection is one of the major threads in this book, as well.

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In 1925 South America, Gabriela is a young woman from a terribly poor background who is “hired” by Nacib to do the cooking in his pub in the Brazilian town of Ilhéus. She is beautiful, from a very low social status, which was (and is) very important in the Brazilian culture. She has skin like cinnamon and gives off the scent of cloves, which entices everyone who meets her. Nacib is infatuated with her and they begin an intense love affair, which binds Nacib to her even more, because the connection between her cooking in the kitchen and her “cooking” in the bedroom have become intertwined in his mind. He marries her but then the challenges start.

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The concept of change and sexual politics are major themes in the book, the new overthrowing the old, and the old-school machismo personified in the beginning of the book, when Col. Mendonca kills his wife, Dona Sinhazinha and her lover, Dr. Pimentel, for adultery. Adultery is accepted among men, but God forbid a woman take a lover.

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What is ironic about the main tale of Nacib and Gabriela is that initially, she doesn’t fit his standard of what he believes he should have in a partner. She is beautiful, can cook like a dream, fulfills all of his sexual desires and fantasies, yet he is still held back by this expectation in his own mind that a relationship has to fit a certain mold. Ultimately, he realizes that he cannot change her, and in fact, to change her would be to lose the qualities about her he most loves.

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Passion colors every aspect of Gabriela’s life and it shows up in her food. Again, another book that features food as a type of medicine, a mood-altering substance that can make others feel joy, happiness, sexual passion and release. Gabriela’s passion is food – she puts everything she feels into her food, and by extension, everything she feels into life itself.

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She does not hold back her heart, and it is that openness that ultimately makes Nacib realize the value she brings to his life……and that in loving and accepting her as she is, it helps him love and accept himself and all the roiling changes happening around him. In her unchangeable passionate heart, she becomes his anchor and a catalyst for change in the entire town.

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Obviously, a book called Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon has some amazing food descriptions in it. Being set in Brazil with a cook as one of the main characters, the food is mouth-watering. Gabriela cooks Bahaian-style dishes involving manioc, rice, jerk chicken, shrimp, peanuts, bean fritters, stews………..so many delicious choices. This passage was the one I chose for today.

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Gabriela was loading an enormous tray with pastries, and another, larger still, with codfish balls, bean-paste balls flavored with onion and palm oil, and other tidbits.

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Bean-paste balls are a type of fritter made from black-eyed peas and called acaraje in Portuguese, and are usually stuffed with shrimp or something called vatapá, which has ground cashews as its base.  So I decided some shrimp-stuffed acaraje and vatapá were in order.

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INGREDIENTS
For the acaraje:
2 14-oz cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1 large white onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
Teaspoon of cayenne powder
Red palm oil for frying

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For the vatapá:
1 cup dried shrimp
1 cup unsalted cashews
2 pieces of day old-bread, torn into chunks
3 cups coconut milk
2 tomatoes
1 onion
1 jalapeno pepper
1 piece of fresh ginger, peeled
3 scallions
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked shrimp, thawed

METHOD
Chop the onion and garlic in a food processor. Set aside.

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Mash the black-eyed peas in the same processor until it forms a thick paste. Season with salt and cayenne.

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Mix together with onion and garlic in a bowl. Form little round patties.

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Heat the red palm oil in a frying pan. Fry 4-5 fritters at a time, for about 3 minutes per side, until crispy and orange-red in color. Don’t cook more than that at a time, because it will lower the oil’s temperature and make the fritters greasy.

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Chop the cashews and process for another minute or so until well mixed and rendered down. Add the dried shrimp, mix and set aside.

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Soak the bread in a 1/2 cup of coconut milk for a minute. Then process for another minute, until it forms a paste-like texture. Mix with the cashew and shrimp in a separate bowl.

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Finely chop the tomato, onion, ginger, cilantro, scallions and jalapeno in your well-exercised food processor, and set aside.

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Heat the remaining coconut milk in a pan, and add the tomato-onion-cilantro mixture, then spoon in the shrimp-cashew mixture. Simmer gently at medium low for about 10 minutes, then add the bread mixture, and a tablespoon of red palm oil, for thickening and color. Cook for about half an hour, stirring occasionally.

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Top the stew with the shrimp and cilantro, and apply to your face. Delicioso!

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The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch

This is one of those books I would want with me if trapped on a desert island. The Wonder Worker has many levels, and is one of those wonderful stories that you return to again and again, always finding something new in the words.

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On the surface level, it’s a story about four everyday people and their lives at the London-based Anglican rectory of St. Benet’s Church. Nicholas Darrow is the rector of St. Benet’s, and along with his assistant priest Lewis Hall, they run the church and affiliated Healing Center. Alice Fletcher is their cook/housekeeper, and Rosalind Darrow is Nicholas’s wife and the ultimate match that sets the flame for the dramatic events that happen in the book. The story is told from their individuals viewpoints, and one of the things I like most about this book is how you see the same events through differing lenses, and you always empathize with each character, even if you hated them when reading about them from another character’s POV.

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On another level, this book is about spirituality and The Church of England, which might not sound like the greatest thrill in the world, but you’d be surprised. Howatch brings the rituals, beliefs and psychology of the Anglican Church vividly to life. Each of these four characters is in their own emotional or spiritual predicament, and it’s the combination of these four different emotional crises that bring the book to its very exciting and disturbing climax, involving a demonic possession! And who doesn’t love a demonic possession?

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On the deepest level, it’s about the power of love. Love has many facets, as we all know. What I took away was the understanding of true, unconditional love for another person. You don’t have to like the actions of the other person, and you certainly don’t have to condone their actions, in order to still love them. Alice is in love with Nicholas, though they never cross the line into adultery. Her initial feelings for him are romantic, schoolgirlish; she sees him through the rose-colored glasses of instant infatuation. When she begins to see his darker side, though, she still loves him and makes more of an effort to understand him. She accepts him always, even though some of his actions later in the book are appalling and she never condones them. It is this understanding and acceptance that helps her learn more about her own motivations and spirituality. She becomes a better person for loving him, and ultimately, it’s this unconditional love for him that transforms everyone else around them. And that is what spoke to my heart, that knowledge that true, unconditional love for another, can make you a better, stronger person. It definitely did me.

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Back to the book. Rosalind decides to cook an elegant dinner for herself and Nicholas when she visits St. Benet’s, somewhat under duress. She plans a civilized, gourmet meal during which they will dine, drink wine, and she will tell him she wants a divorce. What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

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“For the first course I had decided to do deep fried radicchio with goat’s cheese, a very tasty starter which apart from the final frying, can be prepared ahead of time……For the main course I had chosen roast guinea fowl.”

Guinea hen is what it’s called here in America, but I substituted Cornish game hens because that’s what I had stashed in the freezer and wanted to avoid an unnecessary trip to the grocery store. As well, I had some porcini mushrooms I’d bought awhile back and it occurred to me that their rich, bosky, reconstituted flavors would be fantastic with Cornish game hen, and grilled radicchio with a tasty twist. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
3 Cornish game hens, room temperature
3 strips of good quality, thick bacon
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 rib of celery, finely chopped
3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon truffle oil
Sea salt and pepper
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup chanterelle mushrooms
1 cup strong red wine
1 head red radicchio, cut into quarters
Olive oil
2 lemons
Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese

METHOD
Soak the porcini and chanterelle mushrooms in a cup of hot water each for about 30 minutes.

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Fry the bacon until crisp, and remove to a paper towel to drain. In the bacon juices, cook the shallots and garlic.

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Drain the mushrooms, but KEEP the liquid they’ve been soaking in. Chop the mushrooms and add them to the shallots, garlic and rosemary mixture. Crumble up the bacon and add it to the mixture as well.

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Season the insides and outsides of the Cornish game hens with salt and pepper. Stuff each cavity with a sprig of rosemary. Then add the mushroom-bacon stuffing.

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Slice a lemon thinly, and carefully tuck small slices between the Cornish hen skin and the meat. This helps tenderize and adds more flavor. Tuck the little birds into a casserole, pour over some olive oil, and squeeze over the juice of half a lemon. In a separate pan, combine the red wine, mushroom juices and a chicken bouillon cube. Whisk in about a tablespoon of cornstarch. Stir and cook constantly for 20 minutes. Pour the liquid over the birds, c0ver with a lid and cook stovetop for 30 minutes at medium. Heat the oven to 375.

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After 30 minutes on the stove, remove the lid and put the pan of birds into the oven to cook for another 40 minutes. You want them uncovered so the liquid reduces into a gravy, and the birds get crisp. Check them occasionally to make sure they don’t burn.

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While this is happening, grill your radicchio. Brush each quarter with olive oil, salt and pepper, and grill on a stovetop grill for about 5 minute per side, until those nice, black, charred marks show up. Squeeze over some lemon juice and grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

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Serve with any starch you’d like. I love black Japanese rice, so I cooked mine in a mixture of chicken and tomato broths, and garnished with slivered almonds.

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The result? Almost heavenly! The Church would approve.

The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester

One of the most verbose and least credible narrators I’ve come across in recent literature, the hero of The Debt to Pleasure, one Tarquin Winot, is a total and complete food snob. He opens the book with the line “This is not a conventional cookbook,” and no, it most certainly is not. Just as Tarquin himself is not a conventional foodie, though he is  highly intelligent, erudite and a horrible egomaniac. Here’s one of my favorite of his lines that tells you who you’re dealing with: “I myself have always disliked being called a ‘genius’. It is fascinating to notice how quick people have been to intuit this aversion and avoid using the term.”

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Reading this book was a bit of a slog for me, though I enjoyed it thoroughly, because of the sheer amount of long, run on sentences and wordiness of each chapter. The book is broken into seasonal chapters, opening with Tarquin giving a few suggested menus for Spring, Winter, Summer and Fall…..though not in that order. I was put in mind of Nigella Lawson’s first book How To Eat, where she talks about the concepts of French cooking and how they informed modern British palates and food. Tarquin is an Englishman currently living in France, and as the story gradually unfolds, you start to see the dark and sinister undertone to his words. Little by little, you realize exactly who he is and what he has done. It’s a lovely slow burn.

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He is a food philosopher, beyond anything else. When talking about seasonal food and what is appropriate for spring, he waxes philosophical on the theme of lamb and how it ties in with the concepts of rebirth, sacrifice and why it’s eaten both in the springtime and around Easter. This is not new for any foodie or student of history, but his greatly entertaining way of expressing himself makes reading about the blood of the lamb so very unique.

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He waxes rhapsodically about the delights of food in such a delicious, mouthwatering way that you can’t help but feel your tummy growl in response. He is also the biggest prick when it comes to everything and anything else, as evidenced by this zinger: “I could forgive her many things, but his Welshness is hard to bear.” Ouch! Also, hilarious! But it was this passage that enticed me into making a delectable chicken dish that I got from Nigella herself, coming directly after his musings about lamb in springtime and how certain culinary constructs lend themselves very well to certain and specific food pairings:

“These combinations have a quality of a logical discovery: bacon and eggs, rice and soy sauce, Sauternes and foie gras, white truffles and pasta, steak-frites, strawberries and cream, lamb and garlic, Armagnac and prunes, port and Stilton, fish soup and rouille, chicken and wild mushrooms; to the committed explorer of the senses, the first experience of any of them will have an impact comparable to an astronomer’s discovery of a new planet.”

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INGREDIENTS
12 organic chicken thighs, skin on and bone in
2 large lemons
1 large head of garlic
1 cup white wine (I used chardonnay)
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons dried thyme
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
Sea salt and cracked black pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and lay the room-temperature chicken pieces into a large baking tray. I got to use one of my Christmas gifts for this dish – my gorgeous stainless steel Le Creuset roasting pan!

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Quarter the two lemons and tuck them in and around the chicken pieces.

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Break the garlic cloves from the head – leaving them unpeeled – and dot them around the chicken and lemon chunks.

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Pour the white wine and then the olive oil over the chicken, lemon and garlic pieces, and sprinkle over the dried thyme.

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Season generously with salt and pepper, and dot the fresh thyme sprigs around the pan. Cover with foil, and roast for two hours at 375F.

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At the 2-hour mark, turn the oven up to 450F and take the foil off the chicken. Roast another 30-45 minutes, until the chicken skin gets crispy and bronze and the garlic and lemon are steaming and caramelized. Serve with some sautéed mushrooms and ponder the philosophy of food.

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Possession by A.S. Byatt

For some reason, I’ve been feeling rather depressed lately. It comes on occasionally, and I try to overcome it with the comforts of reading, cooking, venturing out to new places, or writing. In poring over my library to find something that hopefully will help shake me out of my low spirits, I came across Possession, which I’d not read in a couple of years. A trip to the rainy British Isles seemed just the ticket.

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I’d forgotten what a great literary mystery this book is. It’s philosophical, analytical, and romantic all at once. Roland, the main character, is also feeling trapped in his career as a scholar and trying to find a place for himself both professionally and personally. He discovers two handwritten letters from a famous Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, written to a mysterious woman, and Roland becomes obsessed – possessed, you could say – in finding out who she is. His researches lead him to Professor Maud Bailey, another mysterious female. Together, they embark on a quest to learn not just who the “Dark Lady” in Ash’s life was, but how and why they met, and the outcome of their meeting. The book combines literary analysis with a sense of wonder in discovering something fresh in a world where, it seems, nothing is new. The pleasures of research, of reading, of taking one’s time, of discovery, are concepts to be savored and enjoyed.

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Upon Roland and Maud’s first meeting, she invites him to spend the night on her sofa, as his lack of money makes it impossible for him to find a hotel. She cooks him dinner and they begin their literary journey together. Their quest takes them to France, as well, where they begin to discover not just who the mystery woman is, but their feelings for each other, as well. I love both passages, so I decided to make two recipes – added solace for my rather low spirits.

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“Maud Bailey gave him potted shrimps, omelette and green salad, some Bleu de Bresse and a bowl of sharp apples. They talked about Tales for Innocents, which Maud said, were mostly rather frightening tales derived from Grimm and Tieck, with an emphasis on animals and insubordination.”

“During his stay he had become addicted to a pale, chilled, slightly sweet pudding called Iles Flottantes, which consisted of a white island of foam floating in a creamy yellow pool of vanilla custard, haunted by the ghost, no more, of sweetness.”

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Potted shrimps were something I’d never heard of, so I did some research and found that they are essentially shrimp cooked in clarified butter, and served generally as an appetizer. Making clarified butter was a new culinary challenge for me, but I was in need of distraction, so I gave it a go. Similarly, Iles Flottantes – floating islands or snowballs – were a new one for me, but I discovered that it is similar to the New Mexican dessert known as natillas, a vanilla custard. I decided that both recipes were in need of interpretation by yours truly, so here we go.

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INGREDIENTS
1 pound of unsalted butter
Muslin cloth or cheesecloth
1 pound of raw, deveined, shelled shrimp
1 shallot, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
Sea salt
1 teaspoon anchovy paste or two finely chopped anchovies
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or about half the juice of a large lemon

METHOD
Melt the butter under low heat. When completely melted, empty into a large, clear container. Allow to slightly cool, and as it does, use a spoon to scrape off the solids that form at the top. The milk solids will have sunk to the bottom of the container by then. Strain through muslin or cheesecloth, or just pour very carefully into another container, so that you get just the clear, golden melted fat solids. The end result should be this nice liquid that is ideal for cooking, as it can be used at very high temperatures without burning. Who knew?

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In a small skillet, heat some of the clarified butter, the shallot and garlic, sea salt, and the nutmeg, and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the anchovy paste and the lemon juice and cook for another minute.

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Add the raw shrimp to the pan with the other goodies, and cook briefly until the shrimp are pink. Divide this mixture into ramekins and cover with the clarified butter. The idea is to have the butter completely submerge the shrimp. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Remove, and spread on toast or crackers. Delish, very decadent, and quintessentially British.

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For the Iles Flottantes, which, rather serendipitously, were featured last night on a late-night rerun of that great old British cooking show, Two Fat Ladies. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the blonde half of that hilarious duo, made these using a chocolate custard, so I decided to try her method, adding a couple of flavoring twists of my own:

INGREDIENTS
6 eggs, separated
1/2 pint of whole milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, separated
4 ounces of dark, bittersweet chocolate, minimum 60% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract

Over low heat, slowly melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, then add the cinnamon and vanilla and stir.

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Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the egg whites, and beat until very stiff, like little meringues.

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In another saucepan, heat the milk until simmering, but don’t let it boil, or it will curdle. Put a spoonful of the beaten egg white onto the hot milk. The idea is to poach the egg white so that it cooks slightly and holds it shape. It’s one of those things that is much easier in concept than in execution. Anyway, do this two egg white cakes at a time. Remove them to a paper towel and drain while you make the chocolate-cinnamon-vanilla custard.

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Beat the egg yolks and the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Add the slightly cooled melted chocolate and the slightly cooled milk. The reason for allowing the chocolate and milk to cool is because if you don’t, you’ll end up with chocolate scrambled eggs. I mean, how gross is that? Delia Smith and Fanny Cradock would kill me! Anyway, stir this mixture together in the same double boiler under low heat, until it thickens to the texture of thin cream. Like this.

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Allow the chocolate custard to cool for about 5 minutes, then spoon into fancy glasses, top with the poached egg white, drizzle some of the remaining custard on top, and refrigerate for an hour, to set.

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Eat, then lie back and think of England. If you can still breathe, of course.

Food in Films – The Godfather Part III

I don’t even want to hear it, you Godfather III haters. I happen to think this film is an underrated masterpiece. No, it doesn’t come close to the jewels that are the first two Godfather films, but to me, The Godfather Part III it has a dark beauty and pain that makes it its own work of art.

I’m on a Godfather kick lately, probably because of the change of season. Something about the dark, cold winter makes me want to snuggle in and watch The Godfather trilogy. I think it has something to do with the colors of the films. The shades and hues are deeper, richer, more jewel-like in tone and the underlying sense of darkness in all three films goes well with the darkness of this season.

Also, I just think Andy Garcia’s performance in this film is stunning. He is the perfect embodiment of the new Don and it doesn’t hurt that he is one mighty fine piece of eye candy. I actually liked his character, Vincent Mancini, the illegitimate son of Sonny Corleone, better than any other in this film. He is cold, ruthless, has no problem in killing his enemies to get them out of his hair, and yet, has a soft and romantic side that you see when he falls in love with Michael’s daughter Mary (and his cousin – yikes!) and takes her under his protection.

Another reason why I also love this film is the theme of possible redemption and ultimate paying the price for the choices made in life. That is, after all, the place Michael Corleone has come to in this film. He is older, has worked to take his family out of crime and become respectable, and in the opening scenes, has just received a medal of honor and honorary title from the Pope himself. Kay, his former wife, has remarried and stays far away from him, and he’s been estranged from his children for many years. At the party celebrating his Papal honor, you see Kay, his children, his sister Connie and many other family come together to celebrate, in scenes very reminiscent of the opening of the first film when Connie gets married. Vincent and his mother Lucy Mancini – remember the scene in the first film when Sonny is banging the bridesmaid upstairs? – yup, Vincent is the result! Anyway, he’s a real tough guy, has his own criminal career on the upswing and is drop-dead gorgeous. Mary sees him and it’s love at first sight.

The film trajectory follows Michael as he tries in his own way, to make amends with his children, reconcile with Kay and, once and for all extract his family from the Mafia that controls most gambling, casinos, drugs, prostitution and other such activities. Needless to say, he doesn’t succeed. After an attempted assassination in Atlantic City where all the old-school Mafia dons are killed by an upstart Mafioso called Joey Zaza (played with a stylishly stupid menace by the wonderful Joe Mantegna), Michael reflects on the difficulty of changing his life, saying before he collapses into a diabetic coma, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Pretty much sums up The Godfather’s life.

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Anyway, I personally loved the romance between Mary and Vincent. I highly doubt they are the only cousins ever to fall in love and have an affair, and in my opinion, it’s handled with tact and delicacy, because Vincent so clearly wants to protect her above all else. He loves her and is attracted to her, it’s obvious, but the protective side of him is what I found lovely and sweet. When she comes to his apartment after the attempt on her father’s life and he teaches her to make gnocchi, it was romantic and soooooooo sexy.

I sometimes wonder if this particular scene was one of the reasons I so wanted to learn to cook, in the hopes that someday I would reenact this scene with someone. Without removing any clothes or showing any nudity, that scene left no doubt that these two were going to burn the place down with their passion. So of course I had to make gnocchi!

Gnocchi, if you don’t already know this, are little dumplings seasoned with salt. Simple to make, and this method adds the flavorful twist of pumpkin, sage, butter, garlic, and ricotta cheese to create these little bundles of deliciousness.

INGREDIENTS
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
Pinch of sea salt
Good grinding of fresh black pepper
2 eggs
1 cup flour, plus lots more for dusting
4 tablespoons salted butter
Large bunch of fresh sage leaves
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Combine the ricotta cheese, the pumpkin, the garlic, the eggs, the pepper and the salt in a large bowl and mix well to combine.

Add in the flour and stir until just mixed. It’s supposed to be sticky but still workable so just go by feel.

Flour a surface or a rolling board very well, place the sticky dough on the floured surface and flour the top of the dough.

Cut the dough into quarters, then roll each quarter into a long rope shape.

Cut 1-inch dumplings from each dough rope, and using a fork, press the tines into each dumpling to give it the classic shape. The tine marks also help sauce adhere to the gnocchi dumpling. I was fortunate to have help today in the form of my friend Tina and her grandson Michael, who helped with the kneading, rolling and fork-tining. It was great fun!

Lay the dumplings on a baking tray and chill for at least an hour, if not more. When you’re ready to cook them in the butter-sage sauce, you want them to be cold so they retain their shape.

Heat a large potful of salted water and boil 6 gnocchi until they float, the remove and repeat until all the gnocchi are cooked.

Melt the butter and oil in a large skillet until it starts to sizzle. Fry 6-7 cooked gnocchi until they brown nicely on either side, and again, repeat until all the gnocchi are fried.

Add the sage leaves and fry until crisp, roughly 20-30 seconds. Don’t let them burn. Remove and set aside.

Pour the butter-sage sauce over the gnocchi and sprinkle over a generous handful of the Parmesan cheese.

A wonderful dish! Warming, hearty and the flavor of pumpkin goes deliciously with the sage and Parmesan. My gnocchi were a bit stodgy, but I imagine with practice, that will improve. A keeper……..if only Vincent Corleone were the one showing me how to roll out the gnocchi, I’ve no doubt they’d be perfect. Or burned. 🙂