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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The Curse of the Blue Figurine by John Bellairs

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

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

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An example of ushabti figurines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Food in Films – Beetlejuice

Well, it’s that time of year again, the high holy season of horror, darkness and goth – October! My personal favorite time of year, when I can indulge my love of all things dark and deathly. I can wear black from head to toe and no one bats an eye. I can watch all the horror films I want, read all the scary books I want and no one will think I’m weird. (OK, they MIGHT still think I’m weird but what do they know?)

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One of my favorite Halloween-themed movies of all time is Beetlejuice. I mean, how can you not love Winona Ryder as Lydia? I WAS Lydia in high school, dark and goth and in love with death, running around in black with white makeup and listening non-stop to Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees and of course, The Cure.

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It’s hard to pick a favorite character or indeed, a favorite scene, because the whole movie is so hilariously funny and the cast fucking rocks! I mean, Michael Keaton as the title character was so terrific! Catherine O’Hara as the evil stepmother who isn’t so bad after all. Jeffrey Jones, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, Glenn Shadix, such a great cast of characters! And the scenes both in the afterlife and in the real world are so awesome. But of course, being a foodie post, I had to blog this particular scene, because come on! What else could I possible make except shrimp cocktail?

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There’s this scene!

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And of course, the best one of all!

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So in honor of Beetlejuice himself, I created what I call a monster shrimp cocktail, garnished with jade-green chunks of avocado, nice pungent cilantro, and a couple of shots of silver tequila. Perfect for a lovely fall afternoon.

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INGREDIENTS
20 raw jumbo shrimp, shelled and deveined but with tails still on
1/2 fresh lemon
3 tablespoons sea salt
1/2 cup Frank’s Hot Sauce or any hot sauce you like
1 tablespoon celery salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 generous tablespoon prepared horseradish
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Juice of 1 fresh lime
2 generous shots tequila blanco
1 avocado, cubed
Fresh cilantro, finely chopped

METHOD
In a large pot, boil about two quarts of water, including the lemon and sea salt. Add the shrimp and cook until pink and opaque, maybe two minutes at most.

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Drain and put the cooked shrimp into a bowl of ice water, to immediately stop them cooking. Drain, pat dry, squeeze over more lemon juice, and chill in the refrigerator for about an hour.

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Combine the hot sauce, the celery salt and pepper, the horseradish, the Worcestershire sauce, the lime juice and the tequila together in a mixing bowl, taste for seasoning and garnish with cilantro.

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Arrange the cold shrimp artistically along the side of the bowl with the spicy sauce, as similar to the shrimp cocktail in the movie as possible.

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Cube the avocado and sprinkle it around the serving platter for garnish, along with the cilantro and some lemon slices.

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Admire your platter and wolf it down, occasionally busting out into a chorus of “Day O!”

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‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

It’s my favorite time of year – the season of the witch! Yes, kiddos, Halloween is nearly upon us and as I do every October, I blog books that are scary, supernatural or just plain weird, and this month is no different. And of course, no scary book blog would be complete without the Big Bad Granddad of horror fiction – the inimitable Stephen King.

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the storyline. An updated version of Dracula, it features writer Ben Mears returning to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot – colloquially known as ‘Salem’s Lot – to write a book about the horrific experience he had at the town’s haunted mansion, called the Marsden House. Unbeknownst to him, the house has recently been purchased by a mysterious antiques dealer named Straker and his business partner, and strange deaths and disappearances start happening all throughout town. Ben joins forces with Matt Burke, a local teacher, and young Mark Petrie, whose friend Danny Glick (shown above) is one of the first to die. They figure out that Straker is the human servant of a vampire who is living in the Marsden House and creating more and more vampires with each person he kills. It’s one of King’s very first novels and is creepy as all get-out, more so now reading it as an adult.

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And for those of us whose childhood was forever traumatized by the 1979 film version of this scary-as-shit book, who can ever forget little Ralphie Glick at the window? Holy fuck! The ultimate creepy kid in a horror flick.

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One of the more disturbing subtexts involves the McDougall family, Roy and Sandy who are little more than teenagers, and their unwanted baby Randy. Sandy, a lousy teen mother, casually abuses Randy and Roy mostly ignores it, until he can’t anymore. This internal dialogue tells you exactly what he thinks of his wife and his life.

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He went up to the door, still steaming. His leg hurt where he had bumped it. Not that he’d get any sympathy from her. So what was she doing while he was sweating his guts out for that prick of a foreman? Reading confession magazines and eating chocolate-covered cherries or watching the soap operas on the TV and eating chocolate-covered cherries or gabbing to her friends on the phone and eating chocolate-covered cherries. She was getting pimples on her ass as well as her face. Pretty soon you wouldn’t be able to tell the two of them apart.

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Depressing as this subplot is, the thought came to me that chocolate and cherries together would make a delicious dessert, so I present chocolate pie in a chocolate crust topped with cherries and whipped cream, based on the Pioneer Woman’s classic chocolate pie, with a small flavoring tweak by me.

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INGREDIENTS
1 Oreo pie crust, pre-baked for 15 minutes and cooled
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk
4 egg yolks, room temperature
7 ounces dark chocolate
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon almond extract
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
A can of cherry pie filling, or fresh cherries if you can find them
Whipped cream for topping

METHOD

Whisk together the sugar, the cornstarch and the salt in a medium-sized saucepan, then add the milk.

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Add the egg yolks, and whisk again until everything is well combined.

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Stir over medium heat for 6-8 minutes, stirring constantly, until it barely comes to a boil and thickens. Don’t leave it, because the sugar can burn very easily. Just keep stirring and you’ll see it come together, into a thick pudding texture.

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Remove from the heat. Add in the chopped chocolate and the vanilla and almond, and stir together.

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Add in the butter and watch it melt and make the texture rich and glossy.

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Pour the pudding into the pie crust and chill in the refrigerator a minimum of 4 hours uncovered.

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Cut into slices, garnish with whipped cream, and top with cherries. Eat and pretend there’s not a floating vampire boy staring at you through the window, gently scratching the glass with his fingernails asking to be let inside.

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The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper

Thanks to CHC for the photography!

October winds to a close, and all the spooky, scary things that went bump in the night are on their way out, ushering in the holiday season.

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The supernaturally-themed book that I raced to the October finish line is a new favorite, a little gem of a novel which I’ve already read twice and thoroughly enjoyed. The Demonologist tells the story of a man’s desperate search to save his daughter from the clutches of a demon, or possibly The Devil himself. It’s written in sparse prose that make it all the more frightening to read, both from a psychological viewpoint and from the fear that it might all be true, after all. Hell and demons and all of it.

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I don’t believe in demons, in the sense of little horned creatures running around, wreaking havoc with their pitchforks and offering people deals for their souls. I don’t believe in Hell, in the sense of a place where you burn over a spit for all eternity. What I do believe in is that demonic forces come from that dark, shadow place within all of us. Every light has a dark. There has to be an opposite – otherwise, how would we know what truly is, if there was nothing to compare it to? As far as Hell goes, I don’t think any literary or Biblical hell could match the hell of not being able to escape one’s own thoughts or deeds. I know from dark and painful personal experience that when your mind is in a loop of pain and anger and hurt and frustration and inability to do anything, that is hell right there.

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In The Demonologist, you can feel the main character David’s anguish, his terror, his anger and his frustration from the start. Haunted persistently by what he deems depression since childhood, and what turns out to be far more scary than mere sadness, he is in the midst of a divorce when a mysterious woman supposedly employed by the Catholic Church arrives at his office one afternoon to offer him a trip to Venice to see something unusual. David is, you see, a professor and scholar of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the epic poem about Lucifer’s fall from heaven that presents Hell and all the dominions and demons therein as fairly sympathetic characters. David takes his daughter Tess with him, and before the horror begins, they share a lovely meal overlooking the Venetian canals, in a restaurant very appropriately named for what’s to come.

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“You know what they call this restaurant?” I say. “Il Settimo Cielo. Guess what it means.” “I don’t speak Italian, Dad.” “Seventh Heaven.” “Because it’s on the seventh floor?” “Give the girl a kewpie doll.” “What’s a kewpie doll?” “Never mind.” Lunch arrives. Grilled trout for me, spaghetti alla limone for Tess. We eat ravenously……..

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Having not eaten trout in years, because of lingering trauma from enforced camping and fishing as a child, and being forced to eat trout that still had those aggravating little bones in it  I was leery. But I discovered a recipe for bacon-wrapped grilled trout. Because what, I ask, does bacon NOT make better? This is the super-simple method that worked for me, based on my recent skill in grilling salmon stovetop, and this method from Epicurious.com.

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INGREDIENTS
1 one-pound steelhead trout fillet, cleaned, deboned but with the skin on one side
1 lemon, thinly sliced
Handful of fresh rosemary
7-8 slices of thick-cut, smoked bacon
Olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste

METHOD
Heat a stovetop grill to medium high. Make sure it is well oiled. Place the lemon slices on the top of each fish fillet.

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Put 2-3 rosemary sprigs on top of each lemon-decorated fish piece.

Flatten your bacon slices with the flat of a knife, just to lengthen them a bit and help them cook faster.

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Wrap 2-3 slices of bacon around each piece of lemon-rosemary garnished fish.

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Grill each piece of fish turning frequently, so that the bacon crisps up, but the fish doesn’t burn. You will need to go by eye and nose. At one point, I covered the fish with foil and cooked for a good 10 minutes, just to steam.

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Plate and serve with some roasted lemon-garlic-Parmesan cauliflower, which you will have made earlier in the day, to save yourself hysterics from trying to roast and grill at the same time. Oh, the horror of it all! You can also add some wild rice with flaked almonds, which may soothe the wild beast in your heart.

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The fish is delicious, tender and flaky with the added flavors of lemon and bacon and rosemary creating a savory, tasty, and harmonious dish, which may kick the demons and ghosts in the teeth. Here’s hoping.

Have a safe and fun and happy Halloween!

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Dracula by Bram Stoker

Thanks to TB for the photography.

It’s October! The month of peculiar things that go bump in the night, the season of the witch, of ghosts and haunted houses, of vampires and demons. And very appropriately, we kick off this month of Halloween-themed blog posts with the bad-ass granddad of all vampires books, Dracula, and its romantic, ghastly hero Count Drakulya, based on the historic Vlad the Impaler of Romania.

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You should look up the historical Vlad sometime. He was a real bastard of a human being, and he’s called the Impaler for a reason…….his favorite method of dealing with enemies (both his fellow countrymen and foreign soldiers) was impaling them on a huge stake and sitting among the bodies while drinking wine. Nice guy.

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But it’s the vampire legend created by Stoker that has fueled my imagination for years. I love vampires, with the exception of those pasty, pallid creatures in that silly Twilight series. But Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, Elizabeth Kostova, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon and my Irish buddy Bram Stoker here have all created truly creepy blood-sucking creatures that have stood the test of literary time.

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You know the story of Dracula and Mina and Jonathan Harker and Dr. Van Helsing and Renfield, so I won’t go into detail about it. But what I find fascinating about Stoker’s vampire is that he has stood the test of time better than any other night creature. There is obviously something about Count Dracula that has perpetually captured general fascination. All the writers above have used the template of Dracula for their books, and there are vampires everywhere in modern culture.

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There’s also that psycho-sexual element of the vampire in general that makes it so seductive – penetration of the other person (with teeth, you perverts), exchange of bodily fluids, biting on the neck. Dracula is also seeking his great love, which he finds in Mina. It’s incredibly romantic,and horrifying at the same time, this parasitic sucking of the blood and living off the essence of human beings…..which is what love can be at times. You can see why Dracula makes a totally sexy and hot anti-hero, even if he does leave you dead on the floor.

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When I was re-reading this book a few days ago, I noticed the detailed mentions of Eastern European food by Jonathan Harker’s character while on his way to meet the infamous Count Dracula in Transylvania. He notes something called mamaliga, which is a type of oatmeal or polenta; robber steak, which appears to be a type of kebab; and paprika hendl, which turns out to be chicken paprika. I think Jonathan was a secret foodie, personally.

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“We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for  Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called ‘paprika hendl,’ and that it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”

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I’d eaten chicken paprika a few years ago, though it was made with canned soup and wasn’t particularly good. But now, recreating this dish, I’m giving it my own twist with fresh ingredients, smoked paprika, cayenne for some heat, some red pepper strips, and lots of garlic because I like smelling like a stinking rose, and because garlic repels vampires. You just never know what might be hovering at your window this time of year, waiting to sink its fangs into your neck.

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This is the method that worked for me, based loosely on a post from T.S. Bazelli’s very interesting blog, but of course, with the requisite additions by yours truly.

INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into cubes
Salt and pepper for seasoning
2 tablespoons olive oil

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2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon butter
1 tomato bouillon cube
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika (yes, I know it’s not Hungarian, but they have vampires in Spain, too, don’t they?
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 onion, cut into long strips
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup sour cream
1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup water
Egg noodles

METHOD
Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast-iron pan and brown the chicken pieces for about 5 minutes. Set aside.

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In the same pan, add the butter, onions, red bell pepper, garlic, flour, paprika and cayenne pepper. Stir briskly to get rid of any lumps the flour may create, and to get rid of any lingering floury taste.

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Add the tomato bouillon cube here so that it adds a savory note to the mixture. Chicken paprikash can be a bit bland if you don’t spice it up. You could add tomatoes, but that’s your call. The bouillon cube will add the desired tang without overwhelming the overall taste of the dish.

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Add the chicken stock and the water, and bring to a low bubble.

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Add the chicken pieces, stir around to mix everything, cover and leave to simmer gently for half an hour or so. Check occasionally to make sure everything is cooking but not burning. After the first 30 minutes, remove the lid so that the liquid can evaporate somewhat. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

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Add in the egg noodles, so they can absorb some of the liquid, which helps both with the dish’s texture and the flavoring of the noodles themselves.

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Add in the sour cream, stir together, and leave on very low heat another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally so the cream doesn’t curdle.

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Serve, preferably on blood-red plates with blood-red wine in goblets, candles burning, and the menacing shadow of Count Dracula stroking your neck as you eat.

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It’s a delicious dish, richly spiced with the smoky paprika and the hint of cayenne giving it heat, and the offset of the sour cream. The red peppers and onion aren’t overly cooked and still have a bit of crunch, and the garlic gives the added oomph that garlic does. Definitely something to make again!