Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Thanks to AL for the photography.

Don’t you love a story told from an unexpected viewpoint, or from a character who has traditionally been portrayed in a certain way? It gives a much-needed shift in perspective, I think. Seeing things in only one way is both boring and limiting. It’s good to expand your worldview to look at something you always viewed in a specific manner, in a different way.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring is the story of a young woman in 16th century Holland, named Griet. She is ordinary, quiet, of a poor family of famous Delft tile makers, who lives a regular life. Her internal life, however, is another matter. She has the imagination and dreams of an artist and a philosopher, though she has never gone to school. Early in the story, she is taken into the household of the famous painter Vermeer to be an assistant housekeeper, and eventually Vermeer sees that she is different. He asks her to become his painting assistant, and then one of his painting subjects. The feelings between them develop, though they are never spoken.

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The overall feel of this book is reminiscent of the works of Vermeer himself – muted, subtle, calm, but with passion and emotion right beneath the surface. Just as Vermeer’s women always seem to be lost in their own thoughts as they go about pouring milk, trying on pearls, admiring themselves in mirrors, or looking out at the viewer as though inviting them into their world, so is this book a small window into another world. When Vermeer decides to paint Griet as his Girl With A Pearl Earring , all sorts of hell breaks loose – in his house, with his wife, with her family, with the other man who loves her. Oh, love…..the joy and agony it brings, often at the same time.

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The Girl with a Pearl Earring – the painting – has been analyzed endlessly. Her look of invitation – or is it fear? The exotic style of headdress she wears – is she from another country? The beauty of this painting is that it can mean anything you want. She can be a saint, a whore, a queen, a concubine, a servant. Women have been viewed by society in this black-and-white way since the beginning of time, which doesn’t take into consideration that all women have the saint and the sinner in them. The world seems to demand that we be one or the other. So silly, because all women have that capacity to be both angel and devil.

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Stories about women in history fascinate me, because there are so many tales untold. I think about all the dreams and hopes and fears of women throughout time, and wonder how it must have been to live in a certain place or era, and have to do what was expected of a woman in a certain historical time. I feel lucky to live in the time that I do as a woman, with the freedoms of choice we have, the ability to earn our own living and not be dependent upon anyone, to choose to marry or not marry, the privilege and the right to be independent. I hope it will always be so.

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In the opening passage, Vermeer and his wife Catharina come to Griet’s home to see her housekeeping skills. Griet is cooking, assembling ingredients for vegetable soup.

“What have you been doing here, Griet?” he asked. I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. “Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup.” I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disc in the center.

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Later in the book, Griet becomes friendly with the butcher’s son, Pieter, who begins to give her parents gifts of beef as he courts their daughter. With the reference to pie in the book passage above, along with all the vegetables, I decided a hearty beef and vegetable pot pie was in order.

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This is the method that worked for me, loosely based on this one from The Food Network, but with my additions of peas, parsley, butternut squash, and herbs. The pie crust I made from scratch using my badass Kitchen Aid.

INGREDIENTS
2 lbs boneless beef chuck, cut into cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup sliced mushrooms, any variety
1 red onion, finely diced
7 baby carrots, cut into circles
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely diced

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1 rib of celery, finely diced
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
Half a butternut squash, cut into small cubes
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup red wine
1 cup beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato bouillon
2-3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 cup frozen peas
1 teaspoon smoked paprika

METHOD
In a large Dutch oven or other stovetop pot that can also go in the oven, saute the beef cubes in the olive oil, after seasoning them with salt and pepper. At this stage, heat the oven to 365 F.

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Remove beef to a plate, and set aside.

Whisk in a tablespoon of flour to the pan juices, add about 2 tablespoons of beef broth and a tablespoon of wine. Mix together, adding a bit more flour, wine and broth, until you get a roux. Keep stirring, to get rid of that floury taste. Then add the tomato bouillon cube.

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When you have a thickened roux, add the Worchestershire sauce and the rest of the beef broth. I was fortunate to have my dear friend Angela, who is one of the most phenomenal cooks I know, cook along with me today and she brought some of her homemade beef stock. Yum!

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Add to the pan the diced celery, carrots, mushrooms, onions, butternut squash, garlic and parsley. Saute the vegetables over medium-low heat for about 7 minutes, until they have cooked and started to soften. If brown bits have accumulated at the bottom, stir those in as they will add to the flavor.

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Put the beef back into this lovely-scented mixture, and bring to a low simmer. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper if needed. Cover, and cook in the now-hot oven for about an hour. Check for texture after 60 minutes, and cook a bit longer if the meat is not cooked to your liking.

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Increase oven to 400F degrees. Remove the pan and check the meat texture. Add 1/4 cup of broth and 1/4 cup wine, and stir to re-amalgamate. Add the peas and the paprika. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

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Roll out the homemade crust and press it over the top of the Dutch oven, using that as your pie pan. There wasn’t quite enough dough to cover the pan top, so I used it as a topping cover inside the pan. We do what we have to.

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Cut small slits in the top of the pie crust, and return to the oven for another 30 minutes, or until the crust has set and become golden-brown, and the juices start to bubble out. Delish!

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Serve and eat with relish on a chilly evening. So good, and comforting, too.

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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!