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 Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

Ah Hamlet, the tragic and doomed Prince of Denmark, whose family puts the “fun” in dysfunctional. What I always liked about Hamlet is that his twisted family dynamic makes my own family look rather normal in comparison. Or maybe it goes to show that we all have messed-up family dynamics, and sometimes, as in Hamlet’s case, we can be one of the most messed-up members within it.

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I read the play in its entirety in 11th grade Honors English class, and it also helped seeing movie versions and having those characters brought to life by various actors, but when I saw Kenneth Branagh’s opulent, glorious, 4-hour long movie, that was possibly when I fell in love with Hamlet and all his arrogant, sad, romantic pain.

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He wants so much to do the right thing and avenge his father, and who can blame him?  What I could never understand was his turning on poor Ophelia. Talk about doomed love. That poor girl, all she wanted was to love him and help him and his perception of the world around him and his anger toward women – his mother particularly – twists his love for her and makes himreject her. And in her despair, she commits the ultimate act of pain and drowns herself.

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His rage at his mother’s betrayal is the pivot point from which most of the major actions happen. Hamlet is so angry at her weakness and for marrying his uncle so quickly after the death of his father, and he scalds her with his words. The guy could cut with his tongue, that’s for certain, and when he uses the analogy of the food served at his father’s funeral as being part of the wedding feast, it’s the ultimate food play on words.

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Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven or ever had I seen that day, Horatio! My father, methinks I see my father.

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Baked meats were often encased in pastry, called coffins, in Elizabethan times, when The Bard wrote his masterpiece. In an upscale Elizabethan kitchen, many spices would be used to flavor the meats, including nutmeg, pepper, onion, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and sugar. I opted to make baked chicken mini pies – baked chicken in a “coffin”, using a pastry method taken from Elizabethan times via Tori Avey’s awesome food site, and making filling spiced with paprika, a tiny hint of nutmeg and cinnamon, mushrooms, heavy cream, and a bit of Parmesan cheese, which I had lying around and needed to use.

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INGREDIENTS
For the pastry dough:
1 cup of cold water
1 stick of butter, cut into cubes
3 cups flour
2 egg yolks at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt

For the filling:
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
3 chicken thighs, poached or roasted, and finely cubed
1 cup wilted spinach
1 cup mushrooms, also wilted
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
1 egg, beaten with salt and a bit of water

METHOD
Put the flour and salt into the bowl of your most awesome Kitchen Aid mixer, and gradually add the butter chunks. Mix using the pastry hook attachment at medium low speed.

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Add the egg yolks and mix to incorporate.

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Keep mixing on low, and gradually add the water, until the mixture forms a ball of dough. Wrap in plastic, let rest for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat the oven to 375F. While the dough rests, combine the spices with the cooked chicken, the mushrooms and spinach, and the heavy cream in a saucepan. Stir until well warmed through, taste for seasoning, and sprinkle in the Parmesan.

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Divide the dough into 4 pieces, and roll each quarter out into sheets of roughly 1/2 inch thickness. Cut rounds using a biscuit cutter.

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Fill each round with the chicken-spinach-mushroom mixture.

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Rub some water around the dough edge, and press over another pastry round to form a little pie. Press the edges with a fork tine to seal, and brush with beaten egg mixed with a bit of water and some salt.

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Bake for 50 minutes, or until golden brown and you can smell the spices and chicken. Very tasty, just as the Bard would have wanted.

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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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Grimm Tales by Phillip Pullman

Thanks to TB for the photography – and the duck tureen!

I think I’ve mentioned this previously, but I’m a sucker for fairy tales. I still have the picture books from my childhood that transported me to magical kingdoms of princesses who dance their slippers to pieces every night, poisoned apples that send one to sleep for 100 years, enchanted forests that hide wolves in granny’s clothes, beasts that are transformed into handsome princes, and glass slippers that lead the way to true love.

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I’ve read and re-read Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, and more recently, Angela Carter, Jack Zipes and Phillip Pullman’s retelling of Grimm Tales.

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A photographer friend had the idea of recreating fairy tales in photos a few years back, and guess who got to be Snow White and eat the poisoned apple! Yours truly. Photo credit: Karen Michelle Quisling

Most of us probably know that the Disney versions of fairy tales are heavily bowdlerized, made pretty for children and to incorporate modern sensibilities. The original tales are much darker, bloodier and if you stop to think about it, highly depressing. Parents abandoning their children, or in the case of the story The Juniper Tree, actually murdering them. Stepmothers hating their stepchildren so much they plot their deaths. Gruesome acts of self-mutilation or dismemberment……all to be put right at the end when the hero or heroine either complete a task, or prove their honor and loyalty.

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What’s ultimately the thing to remember about fairy tales is that they not only reflect the times in which they were originally written and conceived, they also still reflect some realities in this day and age. Sadly, parents still to mistreat their children in terrible ways, and we as a species still seek to escape from horrible truths by retreating into fantasy worlds such as fairy tales, where wishes often do come true.

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Food in fairy tales always has interesting symbolic meaning, usually representing either starvation or plenty. Magical pots abound, providing nourishing and luxurious meals when wished upon. Families abandon children because there is no food. Enchanted cottages are made of gingerbread and chocolate. Cakes and wine are taken to grandmothers. Rapunzel leaves are coveted and traded for a child. Breadcrumbs are used to find the way back home, and enchanted speaking animals such as goats, fish and ducks, are wished upon then eaten. The concept of meals being created out of thin air from simple wishes is particularly fascinating me, as a cook.

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Pullman’s retelling of the classic tale “One Eye, Two Eyes and Three Eyes” was both funny and sad, with the two deformed sisters constantly torturing their sister with two eyes – the normal one. It has the classic fairy tale devices of making wishes, with Two Eyes attempting to make her life better by wishing for nourishing meals from her magical goat, after singing her sister to sleep.

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One Eye’s single eyelid drooped and sank lower and lower and finally she started snoring. Once Two Eyes was sure her sister was fast asleep, she said: “Little goat, bleat, bring me good things to eat.” And at once the magic table appeared, and on it there was leek soup, roast chicken, and strawberries and cream.

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A combination of leek soup and chicken seemed in order, on this gloomy Sunday, so I decided to make a cream of chicken and leek soup. This is the method that worked for me, based on a recipe I remember my grandmother making many times – potato and bacon soup – combined with my own tried and true cream of chicken a la king soup recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 slices thick-cut bacon
1 tablespoon butter
4 cloves of garlic, finely diced
2 leeks, sliced into circles
1 red bell pepper, diced

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2 ribs celery, finely diced
3 tablespoons chicken bouillon paste
1 tomato bouillon cube
1 carton sliced mushrooms
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup white wine
5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
4 red potatoes, cubed

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1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Snip the bacon into small pieces. Put them into the oil in a hot pan. Cook for about 7-8 minutes, until the bacon starts to crisp. Make sure the bacon is well cooked before moving to the step below, otherwise you’ll have soggy bacon. Eeeeeewwwwww.

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Remove the crisp, cooked bacon to a paper towel to drain. Add the butter to the oil in the pan. Add the sliced leeks, garlic, celery and red pepper. Stir around until they begin to soften, between 10-15 minutes.

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Add the chicken bouillon paste and tomato bouillon cube, and whisk in well. Lower the heat. Then add the mushrooms and stir again so that everything is well coated with the oil and butter.

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In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour with a half-cup of the chicken broth and a splash of the white wine, mixing together to make a smooth paste. Stir into the pot of vegetables and cook another few minutes until a somewhat thick, creamy sauce forms.

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Add the rest of the chicken broth and the wine. Add the potatoes, the chicken, and the crumbled-up bacon, and season the concoction with salt and pepper.

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Bring to a boil, lower the heat and allow to simmer, covered, for up to 45 minutes, to ensure the potatoes cook through. The longer you cook this delicious soup, the more the flavors will mingle. Plus, the great thing about using chicken thighs is that they actually do better when cooked long, low and slow. So take that, all you breast people out there!

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Stir in the cream and cook another couple of minutes, but keep an eye on it so the cream doesn’t curdle. Remove from heat and decant into a large, duck-shaped, soup tureen. Because there is always room for kitsch in the kitchen. Or you can just do what I did and pretend it’s an Enchanted Duck that made the soup appear from thin air. Quack quack.

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The soup is delicious! Velvety texture, creamy and chickeny, with the savory vegetable flavors mingling with the starchiness of the potato and the salty bacon. Hell, you can’t get any better than that!

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