Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire

I will probably get a barrage of hate mail when I say this, but I kinda thought Wicked by Gregory Maguire sucked. I can’t really say why, other than I’ve never really thought of The Wizard of Oz as a fairy tale. It was, I don’t know, too American somehow? For me, the trappings of a fairy tale require a sense of magical realism that, for all that it was set in Oz and the Emerald City, etc., TWOZ just did not have. Maybe it was the lack of a true princess trapped in a castle somewhere. Maybe it was the insertion of the Wizard who ends up being from Dorothy’s time and kills the sense of fantasy, or the fact that her adventure was just a dream. And Maguire’s first book didn’t do anything to alleviate the humdrum nature of the kingdom of Oz.

Anyway, most everyone tends to associate Maguire with Wicked, which tells the story of the Wizard of Oz from the sympathetic viewpoint of the Wicked Witch of the West. It got turned into a major Broadway musical and cemented Maguire’s reputation as a writer who turns traditional fairytales onto their heads. However, he’s written a few more books in the same vein which are, in my opinion, far better, such as Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. As you can probably guess, this book takes the classic fairy tale trope of Cinderella and twists it so that it’s told from the viewpoint of one of the two ugly stepsisters. It’s done magnificently well and I’d have to say that this book is my favorite of Maguire’s fairy tale remixes.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Iris (or is it?), one of the daughters of Margarethe Fisher, who is escaping an angry religious mob in England who killed her husband Jack, the father of Iris and her sister Ruth, who is “simple.” They arrive in 17th-century Haarlem, in Holland, where Margarethe begins working as a housekeeper for the artist Master Schoonmaker. Iris grows fond of the Master and when he expresses a wish to paint her, she demurs at first because she knows she is plain and ugly. The Master begins to show her the basics of painting and they begin an ongoing dialogue that weaves throughout the book, taking on the nature of what exactly constitutes beauty and ugliness, and the relativity of both those concepts.

It’s true, if you think about it. What one person considers ugly can be considered beautiful, and vice versa. There are, I admit, certain universal qualities that render something or someone beautiful, but scratch the surface of any culture or time periods’ idea of beauty, and it is often dated, superficial and not considered beautiful at all by numerous other cultures. And Klara Van den Meer, who later becomes Iris and Ruth’s stepsister, possesses these universal beauty marks in full.

When Margarethe becomes the housekeeper for the wealthy Van den Meer family, she instantly clashes with the mistress of the household Henrika, who mysteriously dies later in the book, opening the path for Margarethe to marry Van den Meer, whose wealth is based upon the infamous Holland tulip trade of the 17th century. Klara, with her beautiful face and family wealth, had been kidnapped as a child and her parents had to spend a small fortune to get her back, so she is prone to numerous neuroses, as we’d call them nowadays. She loathes her new stepmother Margarethe and they constantly battle. But she and Iris develop an odd love-hate relationship, in which they become mutually dependent on one another in trying to survive the sheer horridness of Margarethe’s terrible mothering.

On a larger scale, Iris and Klara come to see themselves as flip sides of the same coin in terms of aesthetics and feminine self-worth and self-realization. Both are judged by society on the basis of their looks, which puts them into the same boat in a sense. Both are women trapped in a patriarchal society in which they must depend on men for their living and sense of worth. Both are able to change their own outlooks on life and take an active role in how their lives will develop. Klara is in danger of being married off to Van Stolk, an elderly lecherous merchant who offers her father and stepmother money, as they have lost their fortune due to the tulip crash. Iris is in danger of losing her nerve to become an artist, to study with the Master and to take seriously the courtship of the Master’s apprentice Caspar, who loves Iris.

The turning point and the climax of the book is, of course, the ball. Marie de Medici, Dowager Queen of France, comes to Haarlem to try and marry off one of her nephews (fictional, of course) and all the families in the town are invited. Klara, who has been living in the kitchen and working as the housekeeper to avoid her despised stepmother, is covered in ashes and soot but these cannot hide her beauty. In an attempt to avoid the planned marriage to Van Stolk, she, Iris and Caspar devise a plan to get her a gorgeous dress and her mother’s famous white satin slippers, never worn. Both Klara and Iris, and Ruth, who plays a much larger role in the book than you would imagine until closer to the end, each take life-changing actions to ensure their futures are not at the mercy of either their mother/stepmother, the changing fates of the tulip economy, or their beauty and lack thereof.

It’s a gorgeously written book, lush and elegant, almost like a tapestry woven with golden threads and sharp, stunning colors. The descriptions of paint colors, artwork, lavish gowns, gleaming jewels, the colors of the winter sky and the glint of sunshine on ice and snow, and the delectable and opulent descriptions of food all combine to create an effect of both wealth and strange magical realism. This paragraph inspired today’s dish:

Van den Meer leaves the Master and Caspar alone for a few minutes. Iris can hear him barking instructions to the kitchen staff for refreshments to be served in an hour: a platter of lobsters and a bowl of lemons – some greens, soaked to remove sand – a pitcher of beer and a pitcher of water and a pile of freshly ironed linens……

Lobster, lemons and wilted greens mean one thing to me – lobster lemon linguine with wilter spinach. Here’s how I did it.

INGREDIENTS
4 lobster tails
1 bottle dry white wine. I used Sauvignon Blanc
6-7 sprigs fresh thyme
10 ounces linguine pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium shallot
4 cloves of garlic
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 lemon, to be zested and juiced
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup of pasta water from the linguine

METHOD
Poach the lobster tails in the bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and add the thyme leaves. Bring to a boil and cook until the lobster tails turn bright red and curl up. Remove and let cool.

Cut off the tail and cut down the back of the cooked lobster and remove the lobster meat. Chop into chunks and set aside.

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the linguine for roughly 8 minutes, until just al dente, then remove a cup of the cooking water. While the pasta is cooking, finely dice the garlic and shallot.

Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, then cook the garlic and shallot about 10 minutes with some salt and pepper.

Pour in the heavy cream and raise the heat slightly so the cream simmers. Don’t let it burn or curdle, though. Once it is barely bubbling, turn down the heat and add the butter, the zest and juice of one lemon, the shaved Parmesan, and season with salt and pepper.

Stir until creamily melted together into a lovely sauce, and add in about half a cup of the pasta water, then add in the lobster chunks.

Add the pasta into the sauce and cook another couple of minutes, tossing the pasta with tongs to ensure every strand is lusciously covered with the creamy, lemony sauce. The sauce may thicken up a bit so add some more pasta water and more lemon juice to taste as needed.

Add in about 3 cups of fresh spinach, cover, and let the heat wilt the spinach down, then stir again, plate up and serve with a delicious Pinot Grigio or dry white wine of your choice. Delicious, beautiful, elegant – rather like the book itself. Salut!

Johannes Cabal The Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard

It’s rare for me to find a book that I love on as many levels as I do Johannes Cabal The Necromancer. It’s got a hero who sold his soul to Satan in order to gain knowledge of the occult and how to bring people back from the dead. It’s got an evil, yet hilarious, circus – very Ray Bradbury meets AHS: Freak Show. It’s got a vampire brother who loves the ladies. It’s got elements of horror, fantasy, Gothic romance, steampunk, a whiff of H.P. Lovecraftishness, a very sarcastic Satan, and tons of witty, black British humor. Oh, and in order to get into Hell, you must fill out paperwork. In triplicate times infinity. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always pictured Hell to be place teeming with bureaucracy. It’s not compared to government for nothing, you know.

Johannes Cabal is a necromancer of some little infamy. Yes, that’s how he describes himself. He runs around in a black suit with a black hat, smoked glasses, a Gladstone bag containing his necromancy tools, various spells and potions, and of course, a gun. Because what else would a necromancer need besides a gun? Anyway, as the book opens, Johannes finds himself in Hell to demand Satan return his soul, as he needs it to continue his research into raising the dead, though not for the reasons you’d might expect.

Johannes Cabal is kind of an anti-hero but he is so deadpan, so witty and so unintentionally hilarious; and even though he raises the dead for a living, was responsible for turning his brother Horst into a vampire, and has no problem at all with swindling innocent people into selling their souls – part of his wager with The King of Hell to get his soul back – he is actually very lovable. I always enjoy when a writer is so talented that he can make an otherwise monstrous character into one that we love and root for. Tom Ripley is one such example, but Johannes Cabal is in a class all by himself. I guess the best way to describe him is that he’s soulless but he’s not heartless.

The characters are a motley crew of monsters, carnival attractions such as Layla the Latex Lady, a carnival manager literally made out of a bone, murdering magicians, swindling teenagers with attitude, a family of inbred and insanely wealthy misfits, a tough police detective trying to put all the pieces together, his beautiful daughter who ends up inadvertently helping Johannes Cabal break his contract with The Big Guy Downstairs, hilariously-named demons (Ragtag Slyboots, Despoiler of Milk and Tangler of Shoelaces, anyone?) and any number of snarky, witty, and grumpy observations by the necromancer himself.

Characters from the Johannes Cabal universe. From left: Satan, Frank Barrow, Leonie Barrow, Johannes Cabal, Horst Cabal, Bones the Carnival Manager, Dennis and Denzil, and Layla the Latex Lady. Image courtesy of AgarthianGuide on Deviantart.com. Here’s the link for more of her Johannes Cabal images: https://www.deviantart.com/agarthanguide/art/Johannes-Cabal-the-Necromancer-Linup-590426600

Toward the beginning of the book, once Johannes has made his Faustian wager with The Devil and goes back to Earth to start the circus, he finds he needs the assistance of his vampiric brother Horst. Horst, you see, was locked in the Druin family crypt several years before by Johannes himself as part of his necromaniacal researches. The Druin family, the aforementioned inbred and wealthy family, are all gradually picked off, one by one, by a mysterious aunt – and Horst’s crypt companion – who had a taste for bloodsucking and killed her psychotic nephews and nieces in some very gruesome and funny ways. Beatrice’s particular peccadillo involved creating the world’s largest museum of peas, so you can well understand how and why she came to her demise.

Then, one morning, the surviving family woke up and found themselves short one for breakfast. They discovered Beatrice tied by her ankles to the chandelier. Her expression was one of purest horror and she was quite dead. There were a lot of peas in the room. The post-mortem discovered another five pounds of them forced down her throat, jamming her esophagus shut and clogging her airways.

Yes, I was again inspired to cook a dish by a passage about someone’s gruesome death. I’m kind of cool that way. Anyway, mushy peas are one of those good old-fashioned classic British recipes that have basic ingredients and yet are so delicious. When I was in London a few years back, I fell in love with fish and chips served with a side of mushy peas, and when I came home, I started making them for myself. Aside from the fact that they are dead easy, you’d be surprised at the number of people who think I’m a culinary genius for coming up with that method! I generally don’t clear up the confusion. 🙂 Classic British mushy peas call for using mature marrowfat peas, but I just channel my inner Nigella Lawson here and use a bag of frozen peas. They’re just as impressive and tasty.

INGREDIENTS
2 12-oz bags of frozen peas
5 cloves of garlic, in their skins
2 tablespoons salted butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat a large saucepan of water and bring to a boil, and sprinkle in some salt. Cook the peas and the garlic cloves in the boiling water for about 5 minutes, then drain.

Peel the skins off the garlic cloves.

In the same pan, add the butter and toss in the peas and garlic cloves.

Add the heavy cream, and using a potato masher, mash the peas and garlic with the butter. You can use a food processor if you want, but the idea is to have a mix of mashed peas and semi-solid peas so I find it easier to get the right texture this way.

Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed before serving. Delicious! I served with a nice baked salmon fillet and it was perfect with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. And nary a pea was to be found stuffed down my esophagus, either!

Episode 11 of “Cooking The Books” Podcast Now Available!

The latest episode of my podcast “Cooking the Books” just dropped! We’re taking on one of horror literature’s greatest and most classic novels of all time, discussing the nature of hauntings and the concept of home, and sharing this delectable and unusual recipe for chicken with plums, so give it a listen at: www.anchor.fm/cookingthebooks/episodes/The-Haunting-of-Hill-House-and-the-Spooky-Joys-of-Chicken-with-Plums-and-Radishes-em1dbo

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

No, I didn’t read this book out of any type of name ego toward the title……ok, maybe I did a little. But that quickly went by the wayside as I traveled deeper into this very hard read. This book takes on the concept of what it truly means to be a victim in our society. It takes the truth and plays with it in such a way that you don’t know who to blame, who to be angry toward, feminism, victim-blaming and victim-shaming, the sexual boundary between youth and adulthood, and what our minds do to protect ourselves and justify our actions, our thoughts and our beliefs.

The story is told in two timeframes: starting in 2000 when 14-year old Vanessa Wye starts attending a private high school and begins a tumultuous affair with her 40-something English professor Jacob Strane, and in 2017 when Vanessa is an adult, living a mediocre life of one-night stands, failed relationships, thrashed apartments and a dead-end job…….and still involved (if only emotionally) with Jacob Strane. It’s a clever device because it contrasts between the youth and hope and destructiveness of Vanessa’s teen year as she is gradually groomed into becoming Strane’s lover; and her cynicism, bitterness and inability to see herself as having been a victim as an adult. She can’t seem to get her life together in any real way, stuck as she is in her job and same ways of doing things and continuing with the dysfunctional and simultaneous love and repulsion she feels toward Strane.

It’s a sign of just how much he was able to manipulate her mentally and emotionally that even as an adult, Vanessa cannot separate her own desire to live her own life and not be considered a victim with her inability to separate herself from Strane. She is physically repulsed by him as an adult but cannot break that bond with him and still tells him she will remain loyal to him even as more and more students come out of the woodwork to accuse him of sexual assault, sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior.

Nabokov’s disturbing book Lolita is invoked throughout, and there are shades of The Police’s rock hit “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” as well. It’s compelling and repulsive at the same time. Repulsion is a good word here, because it reminds me of that famous quote by Freud: “on the other side of desire lies repulsion.” For me, that quote perfectly sums up Vanessa’s feelings toward Strane. As a teenager, she loves his attention toward her, loves his passionate personality, loves the portrait of herself that he sees in his mind when he looks at her, and is physically repelled by the actual act of sexual intercourse with him. That pattern continues throughout their increasingly twisted relationship.

We all know that any 40-year old who pursues any type of relationship with a 14-year old is twisted. We all know that any teacher who pursues any type of sexual relationship with a student is messed up. Why this book is so hard to put down and so hard to continue reading is because there are times when you go back and forth about who pursued who and I think you’re meant to, to really get your head into that space of seeing exactly how subtle the manipulation is by Strane, but also recognizing that Vanessa genuinely loves his attention, loves him. I remember clearly being a senior in high school and becoming aware of my own feminine power and my own physicality. It’s hard, because a young woman just coming into her awareness of her own sexuality is a beautiful thing, and can be very empowering and also very heady. I think that’s why Vanessa has such a hard time allowing herself to truly believe she’s been a victim of Strane’s manipulation – it’s tied up in her own awakening and awareness of her own sexuality and the power that comes with that.

This is probably one of the heaviest reads I’ve come across in years. I couldn’t put it down but I had to at times because the intensity of Vanessa’s darkness, her switching back and forth between realizing how she’d been manipulated and abused and making excuses for Strane and blaming herself for what ultimately happens and maintaining this weird loyalty toward him……….this is the ultimate example of Stockholm Syndrome and you realize just how powerful his hold is over her. She starts gradually excavating her own feelings and realizations as the book goes on, and the ending implies she is at least starting to acknowledge how deeply and horribly damaged she was by Strane and what a bastard he truly is, and finding her own strength. But it comes at a cost, as does everything in life that makes us stronger.

I didn’t go into this book intending it as a food in books post, simply because my head wasn’t in that space due to the subject matter. But I did come across a few interesting food references, and this one in particular stood out to me since it was something I’d never heard of or made before. It’s when Strane takes Vanessa out to dinner during her senior year in college and he is trying to push her into going to graduate school……and with the expectation that after dinner, she’ll go back to his hotel with him. He takes her to some fancy-schmancy restaurant where she peruses the menu before getting drunk….so drunk that she can’t have sex with him…….her subconscious method of keeping the physical aspect of their relationship at bay. Yes, it’s creepy.

The first week in November, Strane makes a reservation at an expensive restaurant down the coast and books us a hotel room. He tells me to dress up, so I wear a black dress with thin straps, the only nice thing I own. The restaurant is Michelin-starred, Strane says, and I pretend to know what it means……..The menu is all stuff like scallops with asparagus flan, tenderloin crusted with foie gras. Nothing has a price.

So, asparagus flan it was.

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
A dozen asparagus spears, trimmed and halved
1 and 1/2 cups crumbled blue cheese
1/3 cup of sour cream (or creme fraiche if you can find it)
3 large eggs, beaten
Zest of 1 lemon

METHOD
Heat the oven to 325F and butter four oven-safe ramekins. Put on your kettle at the same time so you’ll have boiling water.

Boil the asparagus in salted water for 1-3 minutes until bright green, then drain and plunge into ice water. Drain and pat dry.

Over medium heat, whisk together the blue cheese and the sour cream until smooth and creamily melted together.

Add the eggs gradually and mix together, then divide among the four ramekins, and top with the asparagus.

Grate the lemon zest over each filled ramekin.

Place the ramekins in a large glass baking pan and carefully pour in the boiling water, so that it comes to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This is what you’d call a water bath or a bain-marie and it helps create a smooth and creamy baked texture.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, and let cool for up to 15 minutes, before serving with skillet-seared scallops in a lemon-wine-caper-butter sauce. It’s a delicious meal, rich and decadent and satisfying without being overwhelming.

Strange Highways: The Black Pumpkin by Dean Koontz

October is such a great month, isn’t it? The brutal heat of summer is over and the crispness of autumn is upon us, we’re getting ready for the holiday season, and it all kicks off with the creepy fun of Halloween. Being a former Goth chick, I still have a fondness in my heart for all things dark and eerie, and that includes literature. Each October, I blog all month long books that fall easily into the horror/supernatural genre and we’re continuing that fine family tradition by starting this month’s blog posts off with an anthology of short stories by my second-favorite horror writer of all time, Dean Koontz. (Yes, Stephen King is my numero uno when it comes to authors who write horror and I’m sure that surprises no one.)

The thing about Dean Koontz is that he writes in such a lyrical way about both the beauty and horror of the world. His characterizations are always fascinating, though he does tend to have fairly black-and-white characters, something I’ve seen more of over the years even as his writing has evolved. I don’t mind that, and in fact, it can be refreshing to have those clearly delineated lines of good vs. evil sharply drawn out, though occasionally Koontz’s characters can come across as almost a parody of whichever side they’re on. This is definitely the case in the short story that’s the focus of today’s post.

The Black Pumpkin is the second short story in the collection titled Strange Highways. I actually considered blogging the eponymous first story of the collection, which is itself a strange, dreamlike story of second chances, the terror we sometimes find only within our families, and the left-hand path- and I highly recommend it because it’s genuinely creepy and tense – but I opted instead to go with The Black Pumpkin because it has such a darkly humorous ending and I can’t resist a little giggle of amusement to enhance the flavor of fear.

The tale is short, a mere 19 pages long, and tells the story of Tommy Sutzmann, a young boy trapped in a family of liars, bullies and asshats. He is the lone decent individual, contrasting with his nasty older brother Frank, and his two politician parents. Well, with politicians for parents, are you surprised? Anyway, the parents take the two boys to a pumpkin patch to pick pumpkins to decorate for an upcoming Halloween party. Tommy is drawn to a particularly gruesomely carved black pumpkin, and the very scary pumpkin carver lets him have it for whatever he thinks it’s worth. Tommy’s brother rudely gives the man a nickel for it when Tommy refuses to buy it, but then the scary old man warns that the black pumpkin always gives what is deserved to those who earn it. I’m sure you can guess the rest when the pumpkin comes to life on Halloween night. We’ve got mayhem, murder, and a hilarious final couple of lines when Tommy tells the black pumpkin, after he’s eaten Tommy’s parents and brother:

“You missed a bit,” and pointed to the floor beside his brother’s nightstand. The beast looked at Frank’s severed hand. “Ahhh,” said The Black Pumpkin, snatching up the hand and stuffing that grisly morsel into its mouth.

Yes, I was inspired to create a culinary treat by a gruesome tale of a murderous pumpkin coming to life and going on a killing spree. I know, I know, I’ve been told about this twisted side of myself many times over, and you know what? It’s not going away! 🙂 Pumpkin is, of course, the ultimate symbol of this time of year, representing as it does the changing of the season, the colors of autumn leaves, and is the precursor to jack-o-lanterns that dot our neighborhood houses on All Hallow’s Eve. So I was inspired to make this fall-themed savory pumpkin casserole. Yum!

INGREDIENTS
2 cups wild rice, cooked in chicken stock
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached or roasted
Large handful of fresh sage leaves
2 cups of pumpkin puree
2 generous tablespoons of garlic powder
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
1 cup goat cheese
Salt and pepper
1 cup Italian-style breadcrumbs

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F. Cut the cooked chicken into chunks and season with salt and pepper.

Slice the sage into thin ribbons.

Add the pumpkin puree to the chicken, and mix in the garlic, the sage, the Parmesan and the goat cheese.

Mix well and taste for seasoning before adding any more salt and pepper.

Mix the wild rice with the chicken and pumpkin mixture, then put into a glass baking dish. Top with the bread crumbs and the few remaining bits of goat cheese, then bake for 45 minutes.

Delicious! Rich yet delicate, with the sharpness of the cheese contrasting beautifully with the mellow sage, the savory chicken and the sweet pumpkin. A perfect Halloween meal, with hopes that The Black Pumpkin doesn’t come knocking on your door tonight!

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

If you’ve followed my blog long enough, you’ll be familiar with my great disdain for “chick lit,” not because I think literature by women for women is bad but because so much of it is terribly written, horribly edited, dumbed down, and the topic of true love is often written about in such a sappy-ass manner, or it’s totally clichéd. I can’t stand clichés, in literature or in life. However, I would deem Cinnamon and Gunpowder as a type of “chick lit” except it was written by a man. So if you can imagine a clichéd story about a female pirate on the high seas who kidnaps a male chef and makes him cook a gourmet meal for her once a week as a way to earn his freedom, I’d say, yes it has the makings of a cheesy-ass Harlequin romance novel.

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But I’d be wrong. This book is so wonderfully and well-written, so descriptive of life at sea, and written with such dry wit, and best of all, it takes what could be considered a boring literary trope – a pirate kidnapping someone and taking them on the high seas on a quest – and turns it into a feminist manifesto of a sort. And you gotta love a good female pirate, right? There are actually some female pirates in history – Grace O’Malley being the one that comes immediately to mind. 

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Mad Hannah Mabbott – and seriously, how could she be anything but a pirate with a moniker like that? – is the captain of The Flying Rose, and committed to righting the wrongs done by Lord Ramsey and his British colonial Pendleton Trading Company. Owen Wedgwood is chef to Lord Ramsey and in the process of serving a delectable gourmet meal to Ramsey and his assorted, equally aristocratic and horrible British guests, Hannah swoops in with her motley crew, kills the men, and kidnaps Owen. Owen is taken to sea initially as a lark and to cook for Hannah, who tells him he must cook her a gourmet meal once a week. The fact that he has limited foodstuffs, nearly no equipment and must cook on a swaying sea vessel has little effect on her. I think I would lose my damn mind if I were taken hostage on a pirate ship and told to cook with next to nothing, but if the pirate captain was tall, dark and handsome and I had to cook for him, I suppose I could force myself to make the effort. 🙂

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As you can no doubt guess, eventually Owen falls under the sway of Hannah’s magic, not because she is trying to entice him sexually, as you’d likely find in a chick-lit book, but because she is truly a strong woman who has grown up in a whorehouse and been sold to many  men before she gains her own independence on the high seas, because she is kind and caring in her own tough way, and because she is the mother to The Fox, another pirate who is fairly insane in his own way and her mothering instincts are what finally break down Owen’s defenses. Owen resists until nearly the end, making three ill-advised attempts to escape the ship, each funnier than the next, until one such evening he serves her his latest concoction, he notices her beauty and the fact that she is a bit curvier than usual due to his culinary skills, and realizes he is a goner.

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Being a foodie, reading the descriptions of Owen’s attempts to cook gourmet meals on a ship with few ingredients was delightful! Owen nourishes a homemade yeast starter by keeping it next to his heart and feeds it with varying liquids to keep it active. He smokes eels in tea, is able to make a herring pâté, creates vanilla-scented amaretto cookies, brews his own banana ale, rolls out homemade ravioli, braises pigeon, attempts a delectable-sounding chocolate mole flavored with soy sauce, and my own personal favorite, concocts potato-crusted crab cakes, the description of which made my mouth water.

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The last of the potatoes went into the crab croquettes. After grating and salting the tubers, I squeezed out as much water as I could and put the liquid aside to settle out. In half an hour, the starch had precipitated. I poured off the water and stirred the starch back into the potatoes (such are the humble measures of an eggless world) along with the virginal crab meat, black pepper, and dried cilantro, and set them aside for frying.

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Luckily for me, I don’t live in an eggless world, so making potato crab cakes was for me, a walk in the park.

INGREDIENTS
1 large egg, room temperature
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons Worchestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Sprinkle of sea salt
8 ounces fresh lump crab meat
1 cup mashed potatoes (I just boiled and mashed two russets and added salt and butter)

1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
Butter

METHOD
In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, mayonnaise, parsley, cilantro, Dijon mustard, Worchestershire sauce, Old Bay, lemon juice and salt.

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Gently mix in the crab meat and the mashed potatoes and form small cakes with your hands, then cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

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Preheat the oven to 450F and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Dredge each cake in breadcrumbs and dab the top of each crab cake with a small bit of butter before placing on the baking tray.

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Bake for 17 minutes or until light golden brown, and the smell of the crab and butter tortures you.

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Serve with a wasabi-lemon mayonnaise and dive in! So delicious, rich yet light, with the hint of the far-off sea and the zest of lemon. Wonderful! I feel certain I would not be drawn and quartered by a pirate queen for these.

Alburquerque by Rudolfo Anaya

Those of you who know me know of my deep and abiding love for the books of Rudolfo Anaya. For those of you who may not have heard of him, he is a well-known New Mexico writer who wrote what many consider the seminal work of Chicano literature – Bless Me, Ultima. His work tends to focus on the lives of his fellow New Mexicans, and he has made forays into children’s literature as well. He’s written poems, essays, short stories, and plays, but it is his fictional novels that reveal his heart and soul, as well as the intense love he has for his home state and in particular, for the city where we both reside, Albuquerque.

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His novel Alburquerque – yes, you read that correctly with the extra “R” – is a love story and homage to this unique character of a city. It tells the story of Ben Chavez, a writer and professor and his connection with a young boxer named Abrán Gonzalez, but that is only part of the tale. The story takes place against the backdrop of a nasty mayoral race, and incorporates a beautiful love story between Abrán and Lucinda, an adopted boy’s search for his birth father, the spiritual beliefs and mingled faith of the Catholics of Northern New Mexico, and the unique politics of Albuquerque.

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I love this book so very much, not just because I love Rudolfo Anaya, but because it so perfectly describes my city. From the stunningly blue springtime skies to the cottonwood trees along the bosque trails that frame the Rio Grande River, from the tall buildings of Downtown to the seasonal matanzas, from the mountains of the many small towns of Northern New Mexico to the gorgeous homes of Albuquerque’s North Valley, Anaya not only knows Albuquerque inside and out, he clearly adores this city.

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The story takes place right around Easter, and rereading it, I was struck by the beautiful description of the traditional Good Friday trek to El Santuario de Chimayó. Chimayó is a tiny town about an hour and a half north of Albuquerque, and is world-famous for its church and for its holy dirt, which pilgrims take with them as a blessing. The dirt is believed to have healing powers and people come from around the world to see it. On Good Friday, devout Catholics trek on foot from surrounding towns, sometimes walking over 100 miles to show their faith and devotion. This year, due to the ongoing coronavirus emergency, the trek was cancelled. Though I am not a practicing Catholic, I understand the importance of this annual pilgrimage to the faithful, as well as the cultural identity we New Mexicans have with Chimayó. I pray that next year we can renew this wonderful tradition.

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Then, of course, there is the New Mexican food that is described in luscious detail by Anaya. Red chile enchiladas, tortillas, the scent of fresh green chile roasting, the tart zing of a margarita, and then there is this passage, describing the smells of food cooking as Abrán walks into the house where his mother Sara is cooking.

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Sara was up when he got home. The house was warm and welcomed him with the smell of tortillas on the comal and fresh coffee brewing. She called from the kitchen, where she was making Lenten food for Good Friday: tortillas, tortas de huevo, spinach mixed with beans and a pod of red chile, and natillas for dessert.

New Mexican Catholics have a traditional Lenten meal that we eat on Good Friday. It’s meatless, and almost always comprises salmon patties, torta de huevo with red chile,  (tortas de huevo are savory little egg cakes),  quelites (wilted spinach greens) mixed with cooked pinto beans, tortillas, and for dessert, natillas. Natillas is a delicious vanilla custard dusted with cinnamon and is very central to any New Mexican’s Lenten meal. So that’s what I made, using my own Nana Jean’s tried-and-true method. She used to make the Good Friday dinner every year, and my sister and I took up the tradition after she died. This year, sadly, we are all social distancing so no point in making all that food when we can’t be together to share it. But natillas are so delicious that I decided a bowl of them would be a good distraction from everything going on right now.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
3 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

METHOD
Mix together the whole milk, condensed milk, cornstarch and sugar over medium heat, stirring very frequently. The sugar burns easily so don’t leave it.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites and add the yolks to the milk mixture. Set aside the egg whites.

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Whisk the mixture for the first couple of minutes, so the cornstarch is better incorporated, then stir with a wooden spoon.

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Add the vanilla and cook, stirring often, until the mixture thickens into a custard. Remove from the heat.

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Whisk the egg whites on high until they form stiff peaks.

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Fold the whipped egg whites into the custard mixture in a large bowl.

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Sprinkle with cinnamon and chill overnight.

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Heavenly to taste, light and sweet but not overly so, and just completely the taste of New Mexico Eastertime!

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The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester

One of the most verbose and least credible narrators I’ve come across in recent literature, the hero of The Debt to Pleasure, one Tarquin Winot, is a total and complete food snob. He opens the book with the line “This is not a conventional cookbook,” and no, it most certainly is not. Just as Tarquin himself is not a conventional foodie, though he is  highly intelligent, erudite and a horrible egomaniac. Here’s one of my favorite of his lines that tells you who you’re dealing with: “I myself have always disliked being called a ‘genius’. It is fascinating to notice how quick people have been to intuit this aversion and avoid using the term.”

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Reading this book was a bit of a slog for me, though I enjoyed it thoroughly, because of the sheer amount of long, run on sentences and wordiness of each chapter. The book is broken into seasonal chapters, opening with Tarquin giving a few suggested menus for Spring, Winter, Summer and Fall…..though not in that order. I was put in mind of Nigella Lawson’s first book How To Eat, where she talks about the concepts of French cooking and how they informed modern British palates and food. Tarquin is an Englishman currently living in France, and as the story gradually unfolds, you start to see the dark and sinister undertone to his words. Little by little, you realize exactly who he is and what he has done. It’s a lovely slow burn.

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He is a food philosopher, beyond anything else. When talking about seasonal food and what is appropriate for spring, he waxes philosophical on the theme of lamb and how it ties in with the concepts of rebirth, sacrifice and why it’s eaten both in the springtime and around Easter. This is not new for any foodie or student of history, but his greatly entertaining way of expressing himself makes reading about the blood of the lamb so very unique.

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He waxes rhapsodically about the delights of food in such a delicious, mouthwatering way that you can’t help but feel your tummy growl in response. He is also the biggest prick when it comes to everything and anything else, as evidenced by this zinger: “I could forgive her many things, but his Welshness is hard to bear.” Ouch! Also, hilarious! But it was this passage that enticed me into making a delectable chicken dish that I got from Nigella herself, coming directly after his musings about lamb in springtime and how certain culinary constructs lend themselves very well to certain and specific food pairings:

“These combinations have a quality of a logical discovery: bacon and eggs, rice and soy sauce, Sauternes and foie gras, white truffles and pasta, steak-frites, strawberries and cream, lamb and garlic, Armagnac and prunes, port and Stilton, fish soup and rouille, chicken and wild mushrooms; to the committed explorer of the senses, the first experience of any of them will have an impact comparable to an astronomer’s discovery of a new planet.”

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INGREDIENTS
12 organic chicken thighs, skin on and bone in
2 large lemons
1 large head of garlic
1 cup white wine (I used chardonnay)
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons dried thyme
Several sprigs of fresh thyme
Sea salt and cracked black pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and lay the room-temperature chicken pieces into a large baking tray. I got to use one of my Christmas gifts for this dish – my gorgeous stainless steel Le Creuset roasting pan!

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Quarter the two lemons and tuck them in and around the chicken pieces.

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Break the garlic cloves from the head – leaving them unpeeled – and dot them around the chicken and lemon chunks.

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Pour the white wine and then the olive oil over the chicken, lemon and garlic pieces, and sprinkle over the dried thyme.

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Season generously with salt and pepper, and dot the fresh thyme sprigs around the pan. Cover with foil, and roast for two hours at 375F.

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At the 2-hour mark, turn the oven up to 450F and take the foil off the chicken. Roast another 30-45 minutes, until the chicken skin gets crispy and bronze and the garlic and lemon are steaming and caramelized. Serve with some sautéed mushrooms and ponder the philosophy of food.

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The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

So this was a totally bizarre, engrossing and freaky ride of a book. I haven’t read anything in quite awhile that literally hooked me from the first sentence and didn’t let go. I actually checked it out at the library and got three overdue notices because I wanted to read it slowly and savor it, and then read it over again. In fact, I ended up buying it for myself as a Christmas gift and thus far have read it a total of four times. So yes, you could say I love this book!

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Bardugo is an intense writer and I love her unique style with words. Visceral, irreverent yet serious, with occasional blasts of sick humor and an absolutely fascinating murder mystery, mixed with black magic, frat boy hijinks and one of the more uniquely loveable heroines in fiction and a wonderful world of magic set against an Ivy League university setting………such a bizarre premise that of course it works.

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Alex Stern has been given a second chance, both at life having survived a gruesome multiple murder and in academia having been chosen to attend Yale on a free ride. It turns out that her lifelong ability to see the spirits of the dead – Grays, as she calls them – is the very reason she is chosen to attend this legendary Ivy League college. She is picked to oversee the magic of the eight houses at Yale, to act as a guardian against any of the black magic being noticed or misused by these houses, and in her role as “Dante,” she is part of Lethe House, the eponymous ninth house. She acts as a type of apprentice to “Virgil,” who is Daniel Arlington when he’s at home, or Darlington, as he is more familiarly known.

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When Darlington mysteriously disappears during a magic ritual and when Alex discovers the murder of a town girl and finds connections with four of the eight magical houses, she sets out on a quest to find the murderer and becomes embroiled not just in a police procedural mystery but the real, nasty, dirty reality of the type of magic being practiced at Yale. Some of the houses cast spells of manipulation and perception, some raise the dead, some work with plants to create magical potions,  some can tell the future. Alex has taken to heart Darlington’s assessment that they are “shepherds,” meant to oversee and contain the magic and to protect innocent bystanders.

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I personally love a book that does not explain everything from the get-go and that basically sets up this alternate universe and expects you to follow along and learn as you go. That’s what Bardugo does in this book. She doesn’t stop to explain how this house came into being, why their magic works, why Alex can see Grays and how Alex came to end up at Yale after a youth filled with petty drug use, stealing and living with drug dealers. Rather, you find out in subtle flashbacks and that old “suspension of disbelief.” If you can let go and follow Bardugo into the world of magical fraternities, spirits of the dead, invisible hounds that protect sacred spaces, and ghosts who can possess the living, you will so not be disappointed.

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Darlington is watched over in his position of Virgil by “Oculus,” his cook/housekeeper/research assistant who also acts as a protector and source of information about the other houses….or as her real name goes, Dawes. She and Alex initially dislike each other on site and probably on principle, but they are united in their love for Darlington and desire to get him back, and their need to understand the supernatural. Early in the book, Virgil and Dante – Darlington and Alex – return to Darlington’s private house where Oculus – Dawes – has prepared them a meal to fortify them after all the magical goings-on of the evening, to the delight of Darlington.

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Dawes slid her headphones down to her neck “We have smoked salmon and egg and dill sandwiches.” “Dare I ask?” “And avgolemono.” “I’d say you’re an angel, but you’re so much more interesting.” Dawes clucked her tongue. “It’s not really a fall soup.” “It’s barely fall and there’s nothing more fortifying.”

I’d never made avgolemono soup before, that delicious, delicate yet filling Greek soup of chicken, rice and lemon made creamy with a tempered mix of eggs gently whipped into the hot soup, but I figured it was time to give it a whirl. I was very happy and honored to be given the method from Jessica, one of my favorite Instagram posters and food bloggers, who can be found on IG at @jesswhoamamma. You won’t be disappointed in her feed. Anyway, this is her method, which she got from her beloved yia-yia (grandmother) and which I am proud to share with you now.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-lb organic chicken
1 cup white rice (I used Basmati)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 large lemon
1 cup ice-cold water
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Put the chicken into a large stockpot filled with about a gallon of water. Boil for 1-2 hours, skimming fat and impurities from the surface. Once cooked, remove chicken from liquid and let cool.

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Drain the stock into a clean pot and put on to a low boil, and add the rice and the tablespoon of butter. Let cook, and once the rice is tender, remove from the heat and get on with the avgolemono.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites.

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Add juice of half the lemon and a tablespoon of ice-cold water to the egg whites, and whisk until frothy and pale.

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Whisk the egg yolks together, then add to the egg white mixture and whisk again until well combined.

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One spoonful at a time, add some hot broth to the egg mixture and whisk madly. This is called tempering the eggs, and what it does is slowly brings them to soup temperature and makes them creamy. If you put the eggs directly into the hot soup, they would cook and become scrambled eggs, and you DO NOT want that.

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After about 6 spoonfuls of hot stock being slowly added and whisked into the egg mixture, you can now pour the entire bowlful of egg mixture into the hot soup.

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Shred the chicken, remove the skin, gristle, and bones, and add the meat to the soup. Simmer very gently on low until everything is creamy and combined. Adjust seasoning and add more salt, pepper or lemon to your taste.

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Heaven! Light, rich, delicate yet substantial, with that effervescent tang of lemon, this soup is actually perfect year-round and not just in the fall. Sorry, Dawes! Darlington was right!

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