Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I ran across this weird and engaging book of short stories at a yard sale a few weekends back, and of course, the unusual title Vampires in the Lemon Grove caught my eye. Well, as a former Goth chick who loves all things dark, supernatural, creepy and eerie, anything with “vampire” in the title is likely going to be something I immediately want to investigate.

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A book of eight short stories featuring elements of the bizarre, weird and supernatural, but in very unexpected way, the title tale features a very unusual and supernatural (though not frighteningly so) story of a marriage between two ancient vampires, Clyde and Magreb, who have found themselves living their rather mundane marital life in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, where Clyde sits on a bench, watches the tourists go by and ogles the Bay of Naples, befriends a strange Goth chick and ponders the life he and Magreb have led to this point.

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In many ways, the supernatural element of their being vampires is secondary, as their marriage mirrors any in modern times, questioning if that person still loves you after so many years together, the nature of love vs. companionship, and finding new and unique things – in this case, different drinks to slake their thirst – as a sort of parallel to their marriage in which they seek the new and the unusual to keep them engaged and entertained even as they alternately turn away from, and back towards, each other.

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You see, these two blood-drinking vampires have globe-trotted and traversed the continent, sucking the juice straight from the apple, sipping mint tea, cherry Coke floats, jacka’s milk, and in Clyde’s words, a thousand beverages that claim to have magical, thirst-quenching properties, in an effort to sate their never-ending lust for drinking blood. Oddly enough, when they find themselves drinking a pitcher of tart lemonade in the grove of Santa Francesca in Sorrento, once a Jesuit stronghold and now a touristy, overpriced lemon grove, they decide that lemons will be their tipple of choice going forward. So they proceed to settle in Sorrento and suck dry a good half-dozen lemons each per day.

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Honestly though, I only read the eponymous first story and the meandering prose lost me after awhile. I enjoyed reading about the vampiric evolution of a marriage and the luscious lemon groves of Amalfi but Russell, though a beautiful handler of the English language, really doesn’t know how to end a story and Vampires in the Lemon Grove ended on a very annoying and vague note of……what? Are they now bats? Will they fly away? Will Clyde now become the spirit of the young Goth girl? WTH, I asked myself?

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The saving grace is Russell’s ability to bring the description of those magical lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast vividly to life. It’s nearly enough to make you wish you were there, lying in that blazing coastal heat, watching the impossible blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Naples, a glass of wine in one hand and the other hand trailing in the salty water and the heady scent of those uniquely tart-sweet lemons. I considered making some type of lemon cocktail designed to be gently sucked from a straw in homage of these two odd vampires, but instead decided on a dessert, and gave Meyer lemon pie a whirl. Meyer lemons are as close to a true Amalfi lemon as you can get without actually hopping flight to Sorrento, and since this is the season for Meyer lemons, it seemed like the perfect marriage……..and no vampires to be found.

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INGREDIENTS
1 all-butter pre-made frozen pie crust
4 Meyer lemons and 1 regular lemon
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons fresh mint

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F and blind-bake the frozen pie crust for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool, and using a reamer or juicer, begin to juice the lemons into a bowl. They are very seedy so try to extract the seeds first if possible.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, add the three egg yolks and the vanilla.

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Add the lemon juice, the condensed milk and the salt, and mix well on medium for up to five minutes, until a you get a thickened, slightly golden, creamy texture.

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Pour the lemony mixture into the cooled pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for another 15 minutes, then refrigerate overnight.

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Pour the heavy cream into the now-clean mixing bowl of your red Kitchen Aid using the whisk attachment, and mix for 7-8 minutes, until the cream forms thick peaks. Add the sugar,the lemon juice and the lemon zest and whip again.

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Spread the lemony cream over the top of the chilled pie.

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Garnish with freshly chopped mint, and dive right in. Don’t save any for those pesky, lemon-sucking vampires!

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Sexy Sunday! Little Birds by Anaïs Nin

It’s Sunday near the end of Lent, so what else could I have possibly read except some hard-core erotica by one of the world’s foremost feminist writers? Yes, it’s Sexy Sunday again, and Nicole of The Bookworm Drinketh has posted her own take on this book – and her alcoholic escape – over at her blog, so once you’re done reading mine, take a gander at what naughtiness she’s up to today. Here’s the link.

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So. Anaïs Nin. If you’ve heard of Henry Miller or his book Tropic of Cancer, you’ll know about Anaïs Nin. Or if you’ve read her without any prior knowledge of her hot and heavy sexual affair with Miller, you’ll understand what I mean when I say “damn, Anaïs!” Little Birds is her collection of erotic short stories, and what’s fascinating about them is that she explores each facet of sexuality in such a nonchalant, detached way. Some of the stories are a bit subversive, touching as they do on teen sexuality (something we aren’t supposed to acknowledge), and the simple fact that women as as much sexual beings as men are.

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Nin writes very much writes from a sexually liberated viewpoint, and her erotica is very hard-edged and not written with what you might traditionally expect from a female writer in this genre, which is why these stories are so unique and, in my opinion, beyond the usual erotica. I’d imagine most people would expect more flowery, romantic prose, but Nin writes very straightforwardly. This is erotica versus plain ol’ pornography, and I don’t know about you, but I much prefer something erotic and that engages and arouses the mind as much as the body.

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My favorite line has to be this one. “He was whispering over and over again the same phrase, “You have the body of an angel. It is impossible that such a body should have a sex. You have the body of an angel.” The anger swept over Fay like a fever, an anger at his moving his penis away from her hand. She sat up, her hair wild about her shoulders, and said, “I am not an angel, Albert. I am a woman. I want you to love me as a woman.” I’d think any normal, red-blooded woman who enjoys sexuality feels this way. I know I do. I don’t want to be treated like a Victorian maiden made of glass…….I want my lover to understand that I am his equal in terms of desire, fantasies, wants, needs and sheer lust.

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The titular story details a perverted older man who lures the young women from the school across from his apartment up by putting little birds in cages on his balcony, then exposing himself to them when they come to see the birds. Pig. Perhaps I should have made a roast pig dish, but, well, what else was I going to make with that title? Pizza? Yes, I made some little birds and goddamn it, I’m not sorry. OK, I’m maybe a little bit sorry, because quails are so darn cute but I got over being sorry pretty quickly as I crunched into those tasty little baked birdies. Hey, there’s a reason we’re on top of the food chain!

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INGREDIENTS
6 quail, 5 ounces apiece
3 strips bacon, each cut in half

Salt and pepper to taste
1 head of garlic, roasted
Handful of fresh rosemary sprigs. minced
Handful of fresh thyme sprigs, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 cippolline onions, peeled and halved
2-3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 pound red grapes

METHOD
Rinse the quail and pat dry, and season with salt and pepper both inside and outside, and put a half-strip of raw bacon inside each quail cavity.

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Add some of the fresh rosemary and thyme into the bird’s cavity, then squeeze out the roasted garlic cloves and push one inside each bird cavity as well. Drizzle with olive oil and let marinate a good 1-2 hours.

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Heat oven to 450F. In a cast-iron pan, toss the halved cippolline onions with salt, pepper, olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Mix well.

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Bake the onions for 20 minutes, until they caramelize slightly and soften and brown a bit. Set aside.

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Spread the remaining rosemary and thyme sprigs out onto a baking sheet, lay the marinated quail breast-side down, and sprinkle over some of the minced fresh herbs. Roast for 25 minutes, until they have browned nicely.

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Turn the oven up to 550F. Remove the quails, turn them over breast side up, and and scatter around the roasted onions and the red grapes.

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Roast another 10-15 minutes, until the skin crisps. Remove, let rest a good 10-15 minutes, and serve with steamed asparagus. The grapes create a nice, not overly sweet sauce that melds with the balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and is so deliciously sensuous to eat.

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Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

In memory of my beloved grandfather Tito Baca, who lived his life to the fullest. Just like Zorba.

Zorba the Greek is a man well known to me. This book, as well as the movie, was something I read as a teenager, not really “getting” it, but when I came across a used edition in a bookstore, I remembered reading it and comparing the boisterous Zorba and his love of food, dancing, music, women, wine and life to my grandfather, Tito, who was very much the same.

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The book is narrated by the unnamed financier of a lignite mine who meets Zorba as they travel together to oversee the mining operation and meet the working-class men who labor there. It’s really a study in contrasts. The financier is a rather repressed man, focused on work and profits and the details of life. Zorba, on the other hand, loves to sing and dance and drink and eat and make love to women. These two men are able to forge a friendship and share each of their unique personalities with the other, opening up to seeing the world in a different way.

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I think what I took away from the book, rereading it this time around, is the importance of living life to the fullest. Don’t just sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else. Get up and dance! Eat the food you love! Drink the wine you enjoy! Celebrate all that live has to offer. If you love someone, tell them. Don’t let fear or apathy or worry about other’s opinions keep you from doing what makes you happy.

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This is not to say Zorba is a saint, because he’s not. He has decided macho tendencies, though he loves women, but in the sense that he desires them physically. He loves the soft curves of women, the floral scent of their hair and skin, their cooking, their lovemaking……..but he is as much a heartbreaker as he is a lover.

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Zorba is a man of appetites, including food. The descriptions of the luscious seafood and Greek cuisine in this book are truly mouthwatering and make me wish I lived closer to the sea. This description of a beach celebration during Lent was particularly mouth-watering.

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We returned to our hut, where Zorba treated everyone to wine and Lenten hors d’oeuvres: octopus, squid, stewed beans, olives.

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In my interpretation of this luscious sentence, I decided to make a Greek seafood stew with octopus, squid, shrimp, mussels and clams, with some olives thrown in. Opa!

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Recipe courtesy of the amazing Greek food blogger Diane Kochilas, with (of course) a few flavoring tweaks by moi.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb. medium-sized squid
1 lb. shrimp
1 lb. mixed seafood – I used clams, mussels, and octopus
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 14-oz. cans chopped tomatoes
5-6 fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup anise liqueur – I used Pernod
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 bay leaves
12 Greek olives, pitted and sliced in half
1 cup feta cheese, for sprinkling
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Start the tomato broth up to two hours prior to cooking the seafood, so that the flavors meld. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and add the onion and garlic. Stir and cook for about 10 minutes.

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Add the tomatoes, wine, anise liqueur, herbs, bay leaves, and a splash of fish stock if you have it. If not, use tomato bouillon in addition to the canned tomatoes. Simmer, stirring occasionally and tasting for seasoning, for two hours.

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Allow the seafood to thaw for up to an hour before cooking. Cut up the squid into rings, and remove the shrimp tails.

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Add the squid, the shrimp, and the other seafood to the tomato sauce, and stir in the olives. Simmer another 10-15 minutes.

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Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if so desired. Simmer all together for 10 minutes and serve with good, crusty bread and some strong red wine. You can garnish with some sprinkled feta crumbles if you like, which adds such a nice saltiness to the briny seafood. The oregano and olives also make this dish quintessentially Mediterranean and you can almost imagine Zorba dancing with glee before devouring his bowl of deliciousness from the sea.

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The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

This has got to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read some weird stuff in my life. I love books about libraries, about other books, about the sheer pleasure of learning and knowledge and reading. So when I saw the title of this book, The Library at Mount Char, I had to buy it. Little did I know what I was in for.

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Brutal and amazingly intelligent are the best descriptors. I’d say it’s somewhere along the lines of American Gods with a dash of The Name of the Rose and with a twist of American Psycho, and maybe some of The Magicians thrown in for good measure. Yes, there’s a library and yes, there are gods on this earth and yes, there are some majorly psychotic characters in this book. Carolyn is our protagonist and tells the story of her and her siblings who are taken by their “Father,” who is what we’d consider God, to study. They study for years in the Library and cannot study outside of their own subjects of expertise. Then, Father goes missing and the kids are on their own, wreaking havoc, killing, having insane sex, bringing the dead back to life, communicating with animals. And there are some bad-ass lions. But there is method to the insanity that is this book.

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It’s pretty rough in some places, I’ll warn you now. If death and dismemberment, human sacrifice, and killing and reanimating bother you, this book isn’t for you. But if you have a strong stomach, love black humor and esoteric knowledge and want to read something totally unique and bizarre that makes you think and that will stay with you long after you’ve finished, this might be your book. Just balance it out with some Danielle Steel or a nice Disney flick afterward.

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At one juncture, after Father has done his vanishing act, Carolyn and her wholly bizarre siblings find themselves living with Mrs. McGillicutty, in one of the funnier and more bizarre scenes in the book. Mrs. McGillicutty is as sweet and wholesome and clueless as they come…….and she bakes some damn good brownies.

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“Would you like a brownie?” Mrs. McGillicutty asked. Steve opened his mouth to say No, thanks, but what came out was “Don’t mind if I do!” Three weeks of jail time had left him with an appetite. Plus, the brownies were ridiculously good. Mrs. McGillicutty brought him some milk as well. When he was done, he turned to Carolyn. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a cigarette?”

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I hadn’t baked any desserts since I moved, and working in this new kitchen is still quite a thrill. This is the method I used, based on this recipe from Gimme Delicious, one of my fave recipes sites, but of course, with my usual flavoring tweaks and in this case, I omitted the chocolate ganache. These brownies are to die for!

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INGREDIENTS
3/4 cup flour
3 eggs and 1 egg yolk
1 cup Ghirardelli chocolate chips, 60% cocoa solids or higher
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup walnuts
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly oil or butter a glass baking pan. Mix together the flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl.

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Melt the butter and chocolate chips together in another large bowl. Add in the vanilla and the walnuts and stir together.

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Add the sugar to the chocolate mixture, then whisk in the eggs one at a time. Add the yolk last.

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Add the flour mixture to the chocolate and sugar mixture, stir again well, and pour into your oiled baking pan. Bake for 25 minutes, checking to make sure you don’t overbake the brownies, which dries them out. And who wants a dry brownie, I ask you?

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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Special thanks to RP for the photography and kitchen assistance.

Having minored in art history in college, I always fall in love with books that tell stories about painters and their inspiration for famous works. I previously blogged about Girl with a Pearl Earring, which tells the story of Vermeer’s masterpiece. In The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, the painter herself is the enigma. Is the titular painting autobiographical? What is it supposed to mean? Most importantly, and a key element of this book, which of the two titular works is real? And if both of them exist and tell the same story and share the same heart, does it matter?

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Told in three different timelines, it is the story of the painter Sara de Vos, and her “most famous” painting in 17th century Amsterdam during the famous tulip mania that gripped that country in the 1600s; Ellie the young forger who recreates it for reasons of her own in 1950s New York City; and Marty, the owner of the painting in modern-day New York City with his own complicated past.

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Grief is the persistent thread running throughout this book. Sara de Vos mourns the loss of her young daughter and the abandonment by her husband; Ellie mourning lost opportunities and her own complicity in forgery; Marty mourning a lost wife, a life that never was, and punishment of the young Ellie’s transgression into his life and art. Sara’s grief is particularly poignant, though she is later hired in the household of Cornelis Groen and slowly begins to reclaim her life, her heart, and most importantly, her art, with the quiet courtship of Tomas, Cornelis’ manservant.

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They head out of the grounds toward the back country in an open wagon, Tomas on the box seat and Cornelis and Sara in the rear………..also bundled along in the wicker baskets Mrs. Streek has prepared. Bread rolls, Leiden cheese studded with cumin seeds, strawberries with sour cream, marzipan, and wine spiced with cinnamon and cloves.

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Strawberries and cheese have to be two of my most favorite foods in all the world. I’d never tried Leyden cheese but it sounded unusual, so found some on Amazon.com. Hurray Amazon Prime 2-day shipping! The idea of making a Dutch-style grilled cheese sandwich occurred to me, and pairing the cumin-seeded Leyden cheese with caramelized onions and tomato was a creative twist. And of course, strawberries in sour cream, with a touch of brown sugar, has to be one of the most heavenly things to eat on earth.

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These are the methods that worked for me, based on childhood memories of strawberries and cream and sugar, and a lifelong love of grilled cheese.

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INGREDIENTS
1 dozen ripe strawberries
1 small container of sour cream
Zest and juice of one clementine
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of butter
1 large bread roll, cut in half
6-7 thick slices of Leyden cheese
1 spoonful of caramelized onions (see my method for caramelized onions here)
1 tomato, thinly sliced

METHOD
Wash and let dry the strawberries, leaving their stems intact.

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In a small bowl, mix the sour cream, the zest and juice of the clementine, the vanilla, and the almond extract. Taste for additional flavoring. In another small bowl, put the brown sugar and the cinnamon.

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Dip the strawberries first in the sour cream mixture, then roll in the brown sugar and cinnamon.

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Slice the cumin-studded Leyden cheese into thick slices. It was nice to have a strong pair of hands do this for me, as this cheese is quite thick and firm.

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Add more butter to the skillet and melt it. Lay two bread halves in the hot, melted butter and layer the cheese slices generously on each piece of bread, to begin melting.

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Lay the tomato slices and onion mixture generously on the other bread halves.

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Lay the onion-tomato laden bread on top of the cheese-covered bread in the skillet. Cook over medium-low heat for about 10-12 minutes, flipping the sandwich occasionally so both sides cook evenly and don’t burn.

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Serve on a platter with the strawberries, and admire your Dutch still life food work of art before devouring.

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