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. 🙂

The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I can’t say enough about Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s writing. It’s absolutely beautiful, lyrical, lush without being overly purple, and whether describing the sensory overload of a roomful of books, the scent of tobacco, the deeply scarlet hue of a woman’s lipstick, or the existential dread and horror of torture and death, the man writes like a magician. I’ve read each of the books in the series over 10 times apiece, and I continue to find small, overlooked details in each one the more I read. The Labyrinth of the Spirits, the fourth and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, draws together the threads splayed out in the previous three books, brings a kind of justice to the Sempere family, and introduces the reader to a very unusual heroine, Alicia Gris.

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The basic premise of this book is the story of Alicia, born in Barcelona, how she loses her parents during the Civil War in Spain, her chameleonlike evolution from petty street criminal to police officer/spy and her connection to Barcelona, Daniel Sempere, David Martín, and Fermín Romero de Torres (in my opinion, one of the funniest and most touching sidekick characters in modern literature and an obvious nod to Sancho Panza); and her connection to the marvelous and terrifying Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you’ve read the three previous books, The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven – all of which I have previously blogged – you will know the overarching storyline. How Alicia fits into this dark Wonderland tale that pays homage to books, literature, freedom, love and mystery, is both beautiful and sad.

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I will say that my only beef with this book is how most of the women are portrayed, as either femmes fatales or saints, which is something I run across in most books where a male writer writes from a female POV. Alicia is a fascinating character. Yes, she is beautiful and somewhat damaged both physically and emotionally and she does have very complex emotions, but she isn’t a homewrecker and the reactions of other female characters to her is somewhat irritating after awhile. No, she isn’t there to steal your man, ok? She’s investigating a disappearance and looking into her own childhood history. Sheesh. I suppose it annoys me because I see so much of this in real life – this Madonna/whore outlook even from other women when they see a physically beautiful woman and automatically assume she is trouble or that she is a man-eater or a slut or all those other awful words that both men and women use to shame females for daring to look a certain way.

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As dark and painful as this book is at times, it is above else, a love letter to reading. The sheer joy of losing yourself in a book is something that every lover of literature can relate to, including me. Alicia has loved books since she was a little girl, and when she is rescued early on in the book from a bombing in Barcelona by our erstwhile Fermín and accidentally falls through the glass roof of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, it completely changes her life, both physically and emotionally. Can you imagine getting lost in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Between the ghosts and mysterious figures that supposedly haunt its corridors, the sheer amount of books to be devoured and the romantic terror implicit in such a place, it sounds like somewhere I could happily spend eternity. With lots of good wine and Spanish tapas, of course.

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Alicia is paired with a detective named Vargas, with whom she has a strong attraction and shares a unique sense of humor. He’s a bit older than her, which is fine with me since I have always preferred older men. They have been tasked with finding Spain’s Minister of Culture, Mauricio Valls, who has mysteriously vanished and with whom the enigmatic David Martin – of The Angel’s Game – has been connected. Valls was responsible for imprisoning and torturing many people during Spain’s Civil War, including Martín, and it’s feared he has been kidnapped in retaliation. The reality, of course, is much more complex and far, far worse. Anyway, once back in Barcelona, Alicia introduces Vargas to many of her favorite haunts from her childhood and adult years living there. The Ribera quarter is home to her favorite tapas bar, appropriately called La Bombeta. There, she orders a plateful of bombas, bread with olive oil and tomatoes, and beer – a quintessential Barcelona treat.

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“Bring us four bombs and two beers,” Alicia instructed, without taking her eyes off Vargas. “Estrella or draft beer?” “Estrella.” “Bread with oil and tomato?” “A couple of slices. Toasted.” The waiter nodded and walked off without more ado………..the beers and the plate of bombas arrived just in time to interrupt the conversation. Vargas eyed that curious invention, a sort of large ball of breaded potato filled with spicy meat.

Bombas are potato balls stuffed with meat and shallow-fried, eaten hot with a cold beverage. They can be stuffed with ground beef, ground pork, chorizo, etc. I ate many of them when I was a student living in Spain, and though they are made in various iterations in different cities, the bomba is a true child of that beautiful, unique and haunting city of Barcelona. This is my take on them.

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INGREDIENTS
6 waxy potatoes
1 yellow onion, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika – also known as pimenton
1 pound uncooked chorizo
1/2 cup Spanish sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water for 20-30 minutes until soft. Push through a potato ricer and stir to mix and break down. Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside to cool.

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Heat some olive oil in a pan and cook the onion and garlic for 10 minutes, until softened. Remove from the pan but leave the oil.

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Add the chorizo and stir, breaking it into smaller pieces, cooking it until it firms up, about 10 minutes.20200120_125638

Add the cooked onion and garlic to the meat, and sprinkle over the smoked paprika. Cook for another 10 minutes.

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Toss in the sherry and cook until the liquid evaporates, then let the meat cool and get on with your potato bombs.

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Form a large ball with the potato and put some of the chorizo-onion mixture in the middle. Close the potato over the meat so it is completely contained. Repeat until you have 6-7 bombas. Lay on a platter and chill for up to 2 hours, if not longer.

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Pour the flour and the breadcrumbs into separate bowls, and crack the egg into another bowl, mixing with a fork and some water and salt.

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Quickly dip the bomba into the egg, then the flour, then the breadcrumbs so it is completely covered, then heat about 3 cups of olive oil in a large pan and toss a small drop of water to test the heat. When the oil sizzles, it’s ready.

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In batches of 3, cook the bombas for about five minutes, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and eat hot, garnished with roasted red peppers, and with a toast to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the Sempere family, and the genius that is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. ¡Salud!

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Talking To The Dead by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore has such a lush style of writing that you often don’t notice she’s sucking you into a maelstrom of subtle discord until it’s too late. Talking to the Dead is the first book by her I’d ever read and her literary style is absolutely amazing, combining the understated unease of family dynamics with the terror of repressed memories and the unacknowledged horror of how our childhoods can not only screw us up, but others as well.

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Nina, a London photographer, comes to stay with her sister, Isabel, who has just given birth to her first child. Isabel’s gay best friend Edward has also come to stay. Nina’s brother-in-law Richard soon starts playing a major role in her life as she cooks for her sister and begins remembering the mysterious death of her and Isabel’s infant brother. The descriptions of a long, hot, drought-ridden summer in England resonate with burning sunshine, apple trees dropping their fruit-laden branches, scalding rivers, and lush descriptions of food. Chicken risotto, rustic bread smeared with unsalted butter and homemade apricot preserves, cream-filled doughnuts, and an ultimately doomed celebratory feast featuring figs, couscous with goat cheese and roasted vegetables, and……..the soup. Keep reading. It gets better.

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This novel is one of those rare birds that feature wonderful writing, sensually lavish descriptions of food, and characters that are both unlikable and yet addicting in their dysfunction. Toward the end, a celebration dinner is planned and each character must cook a dish. Edward comes up with what sounded like garlicky, stinky heaven…….a shrimp and garlic soup, with coriander (cilantro to us desert flowers.) Nom nom nom! Garlic! Shrimp! Cilantro! A culinary holy trinity, as far as I’m concerned, and a smelling-to-high-heaven broth of deliciousness that you could feed to an angel. But don’t. Keep it for yourself and spoon it down with glee.

I’ll make a fish soup,” Edward says. “If we’re going into Brighton, I know a good fishmonger there. ‘Shrimp and garlic soup with coriander. It’s the fish soup that takes the time.”

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What a crock…….of soup!  This soup took no time at all, and the freshness of the ingredients, mixed with the strong saline flavor of shrimp, the heat of the garlic, and the pungent coriander, made this a true pleasure both to cook and to greedily eat.

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INGREDIENTS:
6 ounces of butter, preferably unsalted
6 ounces of flour
12-15 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper
6 cups of seafood stock
1 cup good white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1 chicken bouillon cube
1 tomato bouillon cube
2 bags raw shrimp, tails on
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
Bunch of cilantro

METHOD
Melt the butter slowly over low heat using a heavy-bottomed metal or cast-iron pot.

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Gradually incorporate the flour one spoonful at a time, whisking like crazy. You don’t want to add all the flour at once, because it will turn into one big, floury-tasting lump. And who wants to eat a ball of flour? Not I. I found the best method for amalgamating the flour into the butter was to whisk when each spoonful of flour went in, then stir with a wooden spoon. Add the cayenne pepper, and the two cubes of bouillon cubes, and stir to mix, so their flavors can mix and add to the roux.

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Slice the garlic into thin shards, saute them in a separate skillet to brown and bring out their flavors. Then add them to the roux.

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Increase heat to medium and slowly add the stock, continuing to whisk so that it mixes with the roux. Again, do this gradually and stir and whisk as you incorporate the liquid. Your soup will thank you.

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Simmer on low for about an hour so the flavors can mingle and mix, and you can enjoy the heady perfume of garlic, butter and roux. Add the white wine after about 30 minutes, so that it too, can flavor the broth. After the hour of cooking time, add the chopped cilantro and the lemon juice, and which will add even more scent to the broth. Allow to simmer another 10 minutes, then add the shrimp. These will not need long to cook, just until they turn pink.

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Garnish with a bit more fresh cilantro and eat with joy in your heart. This soup is soooooooo good, and perfect served with good, crusty bread and a glass of deep red wine. Enjoy!

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

I suppose this book would fall under the category “chick-lit” which I generally loathe. However, I read Bridget Jones’s Diary years ago and remember laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, and the film version with Renee Zellwegger, was similarly hilarious and heart-felt. It’s still as funny today and I found myself snickering yet again as I reread it last week. I suppose many of us who were singletons in our mid-30s could definitely relate to many of the themes in this book – wanting to find a relationship, parental issues, being stuck between two different lovers, trying to find the right job – but for me, the underlying theme that stood out to me then and now was the concept of loving yourself and finding someone who was going to love you just as you were, warts and imperfections and cellulite and all.

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We live in a society that idolizes appearance. We all want to look our best. These two elements combined have created a sense that if we don’t look homogenized, have long straight hair, have the perfect relationship, or be a size 6, that we are not worthy, not valuable, not lovable, not NORMAL. I think why this book resonates is because it shows that when you do kill yourself to look/be “normal” or all those catchphrases that society tells us we must adhere to, oftentimes we end up looking worse, feeling worse, not being true to ourselves. When we accept our faults and our quirky unique weirdness is when we are our true selves and when we are able and open to loving ourselves.

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The book, in a nutshell, is the adventures of Bridget Jones, 30-something, still single, and her quest for the perfect job, perfect weight, and perfect man. What makes it so hilariously funny is that she is about as far from perfect as you can get – in other words, she is just like us. She is funny as fuck, totally relateable as she goes from one disaster to another, constantly trying to stop smoking, quit drinking, drop pounds, etc.

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The film version is excellent, too, and actually I prefer her mother in the movie. Bridget’s mom in the book is a horrendous human being. She isn’t even funny. In the film, Gemma Jones plays her with a ditzy sympathetic self-centeredness, but the book Mrs. Jones is just a selfish, self-centered nightmare who really doesn’t seem to care about anyone other than herself. She was quite an unpleasant character. Other than that, the book was most amusing.

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So of course Bridget is a walking disaster in the kitchen, which lends itself to possibly the funniest scene in the book, when she decides to cook herself and her friends a lovely birthday dinner. Of course, being Bridget Jones, it gets completely fucked up, and made even more hilarious by the fact that Mark Darcy shows up at her house as she is attempting her culinary masterpiece.

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7 p.m. Just got home. Right. Calm, calm. Inner poise. Soup will be absolutely fine. Will simply cook and purée vegetables as instructed and then – to give concentration of flavor – rinse blue jelly off chicken carcasses and boil them up with cream in the soup.

8:30 p.m. All going marvelously. Guests are all in living room. Mark Darcy is being v. nice and brought champagne and a box of Belgian chocolates. Have not done main course yet apart from fondant potatoes but sure will be v. quick. Anyway, soup is first.

8:35 p.m. Oh my God. Just took lid off casserole to remove carcasses. Soup is bright blue.
….
Horror-struck, took mouthful myself. It was, as he said marmalade. Realize after all effort and expense have served my guests:
Blue soup
Omelette
Marmalade

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Now, making an actual blue soup would be totally fun but I can’t imagine it would taste very good. So I decided to go another route and incorporate blue cheese into a spinach soup, and it was a most inspired decision, if I do say so myself.

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INGREDIENTS
5 ounces fresh baby spinach, preferably organic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
2-3 cloves of garlic
1 cup half and half (or full-fat milk)
2 cups chicken stock
3/4 cup white wine
1-2 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup blue cheese crumbles

METHOD
Chop up the spinach finely and set aside.

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Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the flour to brown it, stirring constantly so it doesn’t burn.

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Add the milk and keep whisking until the mixture thickens. You don’t want lumps so stirring continually is a good thing, and better yet, if you do it with a glass of wine in hand, you’ll feel confident and competent in the kitchen, just like Bridget Jones!

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Add the spinach, garlic cloves and salt and pepper, and stir.

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Add in the chicken broth, the chicken bouillon paste and the white wine, cover, and let simmer about 25-30 minutes.

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Tumble in the blue cheese crumbles and let melt into the hot soup.

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Decant into bowls and serve with more wine, in true Bridget Jones fashion. So good, rich and warming and decadent. Yum!

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Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

This book is hilariously funny, riffing satirically on those chick-lit memoirs from the early 2000s in which a heroine ends up living abroad, usually Italy or France, renovates a house, learns to cook, falls in love, and finds herself, though not necessarily in that order.

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The book Under The Tuscan Sun is referenced often, but the other book I was reminded of was the highly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, that also detailed a woman’s “journey into self.” Gag. It was gushingly made into a film with the also highly annoying Julia Roberts and the absolutely gorgeous Javier Bardem, who is welcome to eat crackers in bed with me at any time.

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In this case, Cooking with Fernet-Branca turns the heroine into a hero, in the character of Gerald Samper, a British expatriate (and as an aside, why do we call Brits and Americans living in foreign countries “expatriates” and yet people who come here to the States or to Great Britain are referred to as “immigrants”? Food for thought……pardon the pun).

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Anyway, Gerald is a dreadful snob who ghostwrites biographies for celebrities, and loves to cook gourmand meals. The problem is, his concept of gourmet cooking is horrible. For example, he is given a bottle of Fernet-Branca by the loquacious Marta, his neighbor on the run from a Mafia crime lord. Fernet-Branca, if you’ve never had it, is a terribly bitter, herb-based liqueur much loved in Italy. Gerald proceeds to create a dessert of garlic and Fernet-Branca flavored ice cream, reveling in his own unique style of cooking.

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What makes this book so funny and satirical is that it takes all of the tropes of this chick-lit genre and holds them up so clearly to show the pure pretentiousness of all of these women who go to Italy and find themselves “under a Tuscan’s son.” (Not that there is anything wrong with finding yourself under a Tuscan’s son.) Gerald and Marta are each other’s intellectual and culinary equals, and the story is told from their dual viewpoints, giving us a glimpse of how ridiculous the other really is.

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Gerald loves to sing, horribly off-key, as he goes about renovating his Italian villa, and Marta, who is actually an Eastern European composer, begins using his dreadful songs in her own music, which is hysterical reading when Gerald also hears it and is horrified, not realizing the music and verse and voice are his own donkey-braying.

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I tried a small shot of Fernet-Branca when in Italy a few years ago, and still recall the shudder that went through me when I swallowed down the bitter, herbal hit of alcohol. It’s probably  something one could acquire a taste for, like Campari and Pernod. But even the bouquet of Fernet-Branca is vile, making one wonder exactly how it would taste in a garlic-flavored ice cream. I’m game to try if you are!

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Anyway, one of the more amusing dishes Gerald whips up are his mussels in chocolate sauce.

Mussels in chocolate. You flinch? But that’s only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.

I had absolutely no intention of making mussels cooked in chocolate. But there’s nothing wrong with making some lovely mussels in a garlic, parsley and white wine sauce, and then having a nice, decadent chocolate dessert. So that’s what I made.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous mussels recipe from the New York Times by David Tanis, one of the best cooks out there. The chocolate dessert was based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Chocohotopots from her terrific cookbook Feast, which are little baked chocolate molten cakes eaten hot and oozing chocolatey goodness straight out of the oven. The flavor tweaks in both the mussels and the chocolate pots are straight from me.

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INGREDIENTS
30 mussels
8 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 pinch cayenne
Handful fresh parsley
3/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup seafood or chicken broth
Lemon juice
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

METHOD
Buy mussels that are already cleaned, saving yourself much manual labor and irritation. Sort and rinse them well, going by that old rule of thumb to throw away any raw mussels that are open.

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Add the garlic, shallot and cayenne in some olive oil in a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven on your stovetop. Put a sprinkle of sea salt on top, and cook about 10 minutes, until the garlic and shallot are sizzling and have softened.

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Put the cleaned mussels into the pan and stir, to get all the flavors combined. Add the wine, clam juice, and broth, stir again, and put the lid on, so the mussels can steam. Stir after 2 minutes, then cover again and let cook another good 15 minutes.

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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Make sure the mussels have all opened wide in the steam. If any remain closed, throw them away. Remove pan from heat, and then add the beaten egg to the half-and-half, mix together, and stir into the hot mussels in the pan. It makes for a nice, slightly creamy but not heavy, sauce.

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Decant the mussels into bowls, sprinkle with lots of parsley, and serve with nice, buttered baguette slices, which are useful for soaking up the fantastic mussel sauce.

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If you still have room in your tummy, eat the delectable chocolate pudding cake, which is simply 4 ounces of melted, good-quality dark chocolate and 1 stick of unsalted butter also melted, mixed together with 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon almond extract, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of regular flour, then poured into buttered ramekins and baked at 400F for 20 minutes, and eaten hot. Sooooooo good, and nary a a mussel to be found in the chocolate!

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I didn’t actually read this book when I was a kid, but since it’s ostensibly a kid’s book that weirded me out having read it as an adult, I think it fits snugly into my own Halloween canon this year. Coraline is just plain creepy. It hits a nerve for any kid, me included, who grew up wishing they had different parents. Well, that’s all of us, isn’t it?

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Coraline is a typical kid. She has quite an imagination and loves to wander off and find adventures. In fact, it’s her search for adventure in her new house that leads her to find the other side. Coraline is essentially ignored by her parents, which as an adult is somewhat understandable. As a kid, to simply want your parents to pay attention to you, to be “normal,” is an essential part of every kid’s experience growing up. Some parents are better than others. Coraline’s are not. They aren’t mean or abusive, nor do they neglect her in a bad way. They are simply wrapped up in their own lives, their own careers, their own interests and they seem to have forgotten that they have a kid who needs some feedback and attention.

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So when Coraline goes exploring and discovers the other house and the Other Mother and Other Father, who welcome her with such happiness and joy and wonderful home cooking and her own bedroom filled with magical toys and the promise that she can stay with them forever if she wants to, it’s no wonder she is tempted.

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What the underlying theme in this film is is bravery. Coraline is a brave kid, taking on a terrifying task of finding the souls of the three children whom the Other Mother has already taken, and possibly losing her own in the process.  The Other Mother is truly frightening. She has black button eyes and seems to know the deepest parts of Coraline’s mind and soul, anticipating Coraline’s moves when Coraline tries to find and release the souls of the other children trapped there. But it’s tempting for Coraline as well, because the Other Mother promises something Coraline doesn’t get from her parents – normalcy and attention. The fact that the Other Mother also does what any dream mother would do – cook a kid’s absolute favorite foods – is another mark in her favor since in her regular world, her real father cooks all this horrible gourmet food when he should realize that Coraline only wants microwaved food, like any regular kid. 🙂

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Coraline’s father stopped working and made them all dinner. Coraline was disgusted. “Daddy,” she said, “you’ve made a recipe again.” “It’s leek and potato stew, with a tarragon garnish and melted Gruyere cheese,” he admitted. Coraline sighed. Then she went to the freezer and got out some microwave chips and a microwave pizza.”

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Well, I don’t know about Coraline but to me, potato and leek soup with Gruyere and tarragon sound absolutely delicious, and perfect to make as the late summer weather changes to cool autumn temperatures. So that’s what I made. (Obligatory shot of my dog included, just because she’s cute.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons butter
3 leeks, well cleaned and trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 leeks, trimmed and well washed
1 carton chicken broth
1/2 bottle white wine
1 tablespoon fresh chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon
3 tablespoons grated Gruyere cheese

METHOD
Melt the butter in a large pan. Slice the leeks into rounds and add to the butter. Let saute for about 5 minutes.

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Finely mince the garlic and the tarragon and add both to the leeks in the pan. Let them cook together for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a dash or two of sea salt.

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Cube the peeled potatoes and add to the leeks, tarragon, and garlic. Stir around to cover with the butter.

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Add the dried thyme, pour over the chicken broth and the white wine, cover and let simmer for 45 minutes, until the potatoes have completely softened.

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Bust out the fabulous stick blender and blend until everything is smooth and velvety and unctuous.

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Add in the grated Gruyere cheese and stir to mix and melt. Let simmer a few more minutes, tasting for seasoning.

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Decant into soup bowls and garnish with some more fresh tarragon. The licorice hint from the tarragon is a perfect contrast to the starchy potatoes and rich cheese. So delicious! I think it might even convince Coraline to try it!

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Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

I went into this book expecting a nice, escapist type of read as I recovered from minor outpatient surgery this past weekend. It was recommended by two friends of mine as a book filled with art and food and set in France, and both of them were sure I’d love it. I minored in Art History and of course, I am a foodie par excellence and love travel, so I gave it a whirl. When you’re recuperating from any medical procedure, minor or major, you don’t really want anything too heavy or deep.

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(sigh) That being said, Lisette’s List was boring. I’m sorry, I hate to slam on books and writers because God knows, I am not an author. The author of this book, Susan Vreeland, had previously written a wonderful novel called Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which told the story of a Dutch painting and its owners starting in modern times and going back through when it was painted, in a series of interconnected short tales. It was beautifully written and moved along brilliantly. This book? Not so much.

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The basic premise is a young woman, Lisette, who moves with her husband Andre, to a small town in Provence to help care for Andre’s ailing grandfather Pascal in the late 1930s. Pascal, before he dies, gradually teaches Lisette about painting and colors and life. Sounds nice, right? It’s not. Dull. Andre goes off to fight the Nazis and of course, dies. Before he went off to fight, he hid away some family paintings worth millions. The rest of book is the tale of Lisette moving away from Provence, following her “list” that she had put together with Pascal of all the things she wanted to do with her life, including finding those family paintings before the Nazis get their nasty little hands on them.

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The book had a lot of promise, and the basic premise could have been done so much better. And of course, the lavish descriptions of rural French country towns, the art itself and the luscious food so typical of Provence and southern France were really the redeeming parts of the book. But the main character, Lisette, doesn’t ever really develop much as a character and in fact, makes some decisions which are downright annoyingly stupid. I mean, if you’re savvy enough to go off on your own throughout southern France in search of valuable family paintings, you’re surely smart enough to figure out who is your enemy. Anyhoo…..

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Like I said, the food descriptions were wonderful and in some cases, mouth-watering. There were any number of food passages I could have reenacted, but this particular dish sounded both intriguing and perfect for the current late summer bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes that are on jewel-like, glowing display at every grower’s market. I was lucky enough to have purchased a large bag of organic heirlooms last week and decided to put them to delicious use.

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Soon, Odette’s daughter, Sandrine, whose brother Michel, would come home someday, and Madame Pinatel, the mayor’s wife, came to pay their respects. Then Melanie brought two jars of canned cherries from their trees and a bag of raisins. Aloys Biron, the butcher, brought a large salami. Most unexpectedly, Madame Bonnelly, a stout woman with thick arms whom I had never met, brought a gratin d’aubergines, an eggplant-and-tomato pie garnished with breadcrumbs.

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I have a love-hate relationship with eggplant, but the idea of a tomato pie sounded luscious, so I did a little culinary research and came up with this method which is a combination of Elise Bauer’s recipe from Simply Recipes and a long-remembered recipe from Southern Living I read about a few years ago.

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INGREDIENTS:
1 and 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons ice-cold water
1 pound heirloom tomatoes, preferably fresh and organic
4 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1 cup of mixed shredded cheeses. I used sharp cheddar, pepperjack and Gruyere
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

METHOD:
For the piecrust:

Combine the flour with a teaspoon of salt, and gradually mix in the butter one small cube at a time. Add the water a bit at a time until the dough comes together in your Kitchen Aid and forms a ball. Wrap in plastic and freeze overnight.

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For the filling:

Slice the tomatoes, lie them out on some parchment paper, and sprinkle over salt and garlic powder. Leave to drain overnight.

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Mix together all the cheeses except for the Parmesan, then mince the garlic and add it to the cheese mixture.

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Add in the mayonnaise and the Greek yogurt and stir to mix well.

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Finely mince the  shallot.

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Heat the oven to 350F and roll out your cold piecrust to roughly 12 inches diameter, then press into a pie pan.

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Blind-bake the crust for 15 minutes, remove and prick the bottom of the crust a few times, and bake another 10 minutes. Sprinkle the shallots into the bottom.

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Spoon over the cheese-mayo-yogurt mixture and spread across so that it cover the pie base and shallot-garlic mix.

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Lay the tomatoes in overlapping circles over the cheese mixture, and sprinkle the Parmesan over the top.

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Bake for 30 minutes, or until the Parm is nicely golden brown. Apply to your face.

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