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!

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.

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

This is one of those epic books that feature a cast of thousands, exotic locations that span the globe, stories within stories within stories…………and Count Dracula. I mean, how can it possibly get better than that?

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Being a former Goth girl, I still have a fondness for the darker side of things. Vampires, crucifixes, ghosts, vintage clothing and jewelry, steampunk-Romantic styles, and movies and books that feature such themes as death, spirits, things that go bump in the night and of course, passionate romance. Though I have to (somewhat) conform in my day-to-day life where I play a bureaucrat, my heart is always in the coffin with Count Dracula. Love, love, love Dracula and vampires in general.

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The Historian‘s premise is simple. It postulates that Dracula – Vlad Dracul – is not just a vampire in a book, but is actually alive and well and has been preying on people across centuries and throughout continents. A young scholar named Paul is given the charge to find Dracula when his graduate advisor and mentor, Professor Rossi, mysteriously disappears under ominous circumstances. Mixed up in this puzzle are antique, leather-bound books, each bearing the distinctive stamp of a dragon. Because, of course, in Romanian, “Dracula” means dragon. Well, of course it does!

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Paul becomes enmeshed in both the search for the blood-drinking Count and with the lovely and stoic Helen, whose Eastern European lineage connects her with the Count in ways no one would imagine. Told from the viewpoint of Paul and Helen’s daughter – with a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca as her name is never revealed – the story has multiple levels, told in three different timepoints and utilizes the epistolary style extremely well, as the prose passages are highlighted by journal entries, letters, telegrams and book passages. It’s a book for book lovers, if you know what I mean.

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This is my ultimate type of book. Long, detailed, globe-trotting, with amazing descriptions of architecture, literature, love, and food from countries as diverse as Russia, France, Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Turkey, The Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and oh so many others! My favorite of all of them was when Paul takes his daughter to visit friends in Italy, and they are served an Italian torta, which is a flourless cake made with ground nuts in place of flour.

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Giulia lit a lantern on the sideboard, turning off the electric light. She brought the lantern to the table and began to cut up a torta I’d been trying not to stare at earlier. Its surface gleamed like obsidian under the knife.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the marvelous recipe at Proud Italian Cook’s awesome food blog, but of course with my usual tweaks. I used both hazelnuts and almonds, because I love the flavors together, I added some almond extract and some amaretto, and for more flavor, I toasted the nuts before grinding them in my food chopper. Nom nom nom!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup of ground hazelnuts and ground almonds, to make a nut flour
1 cup sugar
6 ounces good-quality dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids or above
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
Heavy cream, whipped with sugar, amaretto and lemon
Hulled strawberries for decorating

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METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Lightly butter or oil an 8-inch cake pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. Toast the hazelnuts and almonds in a dry pan until they darken and you can smell the nutty scent.

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Grind up the nuts in a food processor, so that you have a rubbly texture. The smell is out of this world!

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Break the chocolate into shards or chunks, and melt in a Pyrex bowl set over a pan of boiling water. Let the chocolate melt, stirring occasionally

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Add the butter to the melting chocolate, and add in the almond essence and the Amaretto.

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Separate the eggs, and whip the egg whites in your most awesome Kitchen Aid so that you get a cloudlike texture. If you wipe the inside of your Kitchen Aid bowl with lemon first, it really helps make the egg whites puff up.

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Whisk the egg yolks and add to the ground nuts. Add in the sugar.

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Mix the gooey, yummy, melted chocolate into the nut mixture.

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Fold the egg white mixture into the chocolate-nut mixture, using the figure-8 hand method. This method ensures air gets into the batter, making it even more light and fluffy and less apt to sink in the center, though it probably will sink. That’s just life. And cakes.

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Scrape the luscious batter into the cake pan, and bake for 18 minutes. Yes, I said 18 minutes, because that is apparently the timeframe used by the majority of the Italians I know, who make this cake regularly. I don’t ask questions of the experts, I just do what I am told.

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Allow the cake to cool for up to 1 hour before taking out of the cake pan. It likely will sink in the center as it cools, and you will just have to accept that, pick up the pieces of your shattered life, and move on.

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Serve the cake garnished with lemony whipped cream and strawberries. The cake’s richness needs an offset, and the citrus contrast in the cream is perfect with the nutty denseness. Plus it looks so pretty!

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It is a luscious cake, gooey and rich and almost melting in the center, but with the exterior forming almost a crust. Texture-wise, it’s like heaven. Flavorwise, it’s like heaven. Aesthetically, it’s like heaven.

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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.

Episode 7 of “Cooking the Books” Podcast Now Available!

The latest episode of my podcast “Cooking the Books” just dropped and it’s a good one! We’re talking literature’s most charming and horrendous psychiatrist and his fetish for organ meat, discussing the book – and film – that made him a household name, and I share a great method for chicken-liver crostini, so give it a listen at:

https://anchor.fm/cookingthebooks/episodes/The-Silence-of-the-Lambs-and-the-Cannibalistic-Joy-of-Chicken-Liver-and-Fava-Bean-Crostini-ef1i4u

I am also on Spotify so check me out there!

REPOST – Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

I originally posted this blog in May 2017.  Today marks two years from the date that my idol Anthony Bourdain died. One of my biggest culinary influences, as well as someone who changed my worldview in general, I loved, respected and honored his work and who he was as a human being. I hope you enjoy this repost. 

Original posting: May 2017: Oh, that damn Monday fish. Anthony Bourdain, to whom I refer affectionately as “my future ex-husband,” is never going to live that down. I didn’t eat a Monday fish special at a restaurant for  five years after reading Kitchen Confidential. Of course, in his updated version of that classic foodie memoir, he recants in his inimitable style by saying “eat the fucking fish on Monday, already!”

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Bourdain is as snarky and smart-assy as they come. God, I love him. His attitude of irreverence, particularly within an industry that traditionally holds male chefs on very high pedestals, is refreshing. Though he is somewhat of a hypocrite in how he has previously mocked celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray whilst simultaneously pursuing his own brand of foul-mouthed celebrity, I can’t help but like the guy. He’s funnier than hell, can cook like an angel, curse like a devil, drink like a sailor, and is one of those men that just get more handsome and sexy with age. He’s welcome to eat crackers in bed with me anytime.

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What sets him apart is that he doesn’t take himself seriously, either in his writing or his cooking. He’s a good chef and he knows it, but he regularly mocks himself, and I like that in a person. We none of us should take ourselves so seriously in life, because we are all going to screw up eventually. I also like that he doesn’t have any arrogance toward his staff and he gives credit where credit is due – to the hardworking cooks, sous-chefs, servers, bakers, prep cooks, dishwashers and all the unseen migrant men and women behind the scenes who make the food.

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Without these workers, restaurants would shut down. They are the true backbone of the service industry, and I say this having worked for several years in the restaurant business myself; as a table busser, a hostess, a waitress, and a cashier at a well-known Mexican restaurant; and as a cocktail waitress at a couple of dive bars while in college.

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It was fun, but physically demanding and mentally exhausting. I got yelled at by customers and dropped numerous glasses of water working in the restaurant business; I got my butt pinched so often as a cocktail waitress that I think it’s permanently bruised; and for years after I left the Mexican restaurant I could not look at a bowl of salsa and basket of tortilla chips without gagging. I respect the hell out of people in the service industry, and Bourdain respects them, too.

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Well, my dear future ex-husband, I am going off the rails a little bit and making this dish in your honor ON A MONDAY! I’m taking you on, baby, and making that yellowfin tuna in a braised fennel, confit tomato, and saffron sauce. Except, with my usual recipe edits. This is the method that worked for me, based on this New York Times tasty recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
For the tomato confit:
1 pint cherry tomatoes
8 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
3 tablespoons fresh thyme and parsley
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

For the tuna:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, cut in thin slices
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 small tuna steaks, 5 oz. each
Zest and juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup of seafood stock
1/ 2 teaspoon saffron threads

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cut a small slit across the bottom of each cherry tomato. Put the tomatoes and unpeeled garlic cloves in the boiling water for 30 seconds.

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Drain in ice-cold water to blanch, then remove the peels from each tomato. This will probably take a good 20 minutes.

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Put the tomatoes and garlic in a baking pan, submerge in olive oil, add the dried and fresh herbs, sea salt, and pepper. Cover in foil and bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool thoroughly, peel the garlic cloves and mash, mix with the tomatoes, then store in a jar.

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In a small pan, heat the seafood stock to just boiling. Add the saffron threads, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir together, and let simmer.

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Heat a cast-iron stovetop grill to high. Salt and pepper the tuna steaks, oil them lightly on both sides, and sear them each for 30 seconds per side.

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Place the tuna steaks on top of the shallot, garlic and fennel. Grate over the lemon zest.

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Pour over the seafood stock, check for taste and seasoning, cover and cook on low for another 5-7 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Don’t let it overcook!

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Plate and garnish with the gorgeously red tomato confit, and maybe some black rice. It makes a stunning presentation on a plate, and better  yet, tastes delicious. Anthony, I think I did you proud!

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The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell

I found The Fifth Gospel to be quite a great read, fast-paced and adventurous, but with a fascinating historical and Biblical premise as the storyline. It’s simple – a Greek Catholic priest living in The Vatican must defend his brother, also a Greek Catholic priest but one attached to the Pope’s staff, who is accused of murder. The victim? An artist who recreated the Shroud of Turin for a Papal art show and made a discovery that could possibly turn the Catholic Church upside down.

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It’s very well written, heavy on Church history (which I like) and yet has a human side in the main character of Father Alex Andreou, whose desperate efforts to prove his brother innocent are matched only by his dedication to the Greek Catholic church, raising his son Peter, and hoping his estranged wife Mona will return to them both. She does, mysteriously one evening, and when she reunites with Peter, she brings dinner with her, in that clever way women have of knowing that the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.

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“Mona reaches into a plastic bag by her feet and says ‘I brought dinner.’ ‘A gift,’ she clarifies. ‘From Nonna.’ Peter’s maternal grandmother. I recoil. Peter looks at the Tupperware and says…….’My favorite pizza is margherita.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ Mona says, crestfallen. ‘All I brought is some cacio e pepe.’ Tonnarelli with cheese sauce. The devil inside me smiles. Her mother’s version of the dish will be too peppery for Peter. A fitting introduction to the mother-in-law I always found to be an acquired taste.”

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This post came about, in part, from an IM conversation I had with my friend Luca Marchiori of Chestnuts and Truffles. Luca is not only my cooking hero, he’s a marvelous chef, a talented food and travel writer, and takes the most wonderful photographs. He also lives in Italy and gets to travel around that beautiful country ALL THE TIME. Is it any wonder I want to be him?

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Anyway, I’ve gotten in the habit (annoyingly to Luca, I’m sure!) of asking his advice about the week’s upcoming blog post and my thoughts on how to make my recipe unique. Cacio e pepe is a traditional pasta dish that features three major ingredients – pasta, pepper and cheese. You really can’t go wrong with that trio, but I wanted to add my own unique twist on the recipe, so I asked Luca what he thought of perhaps a margherita-style cacio e pepe, combining two food descriptions in the passage above.

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Luca didn’t think combining two separate pasta dishes into one was the best way to go, and when I mentioned wanting to make something one’s own, he talked about the writing of Philippe Conticini, who was, in Luca’s words, “a great patissiere who had the philosophy that when you were revising classic dishes you should make sure you keep all the original ingredients and not add more. Change the way they are put together rather than leaving out or adding.”

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Something to consider. So, rather than trying to make it into something unique, I decided to challenge myself by simply recreating this classic recipe, and having roasted tomatoes on the side. Not IN the dish, Luca, so calm down. But as a garnish. And guess what? It worked!

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this article from Business Weekly, featuring the late, great, notorious Anthony Bourdain – my future husband – in Rome. I mean, Bourdain, Italy and pasta – the holy trinity, in my book. (And very fitting for today’s post!)

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb bucatini pasta
1 tablespoon of butter
3 tablespoons grated fresh Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
3 tablespoons Pecorino cheese
Generous amount of ground black pepper

METHOD
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook for about 6 minutes, until the pasta is almost cooked, but not quite. You’ll see why in a minute.

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One of the best cooking tips I’ve ever gotten in my life was to save some of the boiling water that the pasta has cooked in, and add a bit to whatever sauce you are making. The starch in the water helps the sauce to emulsify and thicken somewhat, and also adds to the dense flavor. So keep about a cupful of the pasta water before draining the pasta. But do keep some of the water on the noodles. Anna del Conte, the matriarch of Italian cooking and food writing, calls this “la goccia,” which means “a drop” to keep the pasta moist.

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In a separate saucepan, add the butter and a very generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Melt the butter gently over low heat, then add the starchy pasta water. Swirl around to mix.

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Add the cooked and drained pasta to the saucepan with the pasta water, butter and pepper. Stir around with tongs to finish cooking the pasta, about 2-3 minutes more. Taste to see if the pasta is al dente, with a small bite but cooked.

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Remove from the heat, and add your cheeses to the hot pasta mixture. Stir again to mix and meld all the cheeses. You DO NOT want your cheese to be in lumps, which is why you want to do it when the pasta is hot off the stove. Just stir and swirl with your tongs and pretend you’re one of those bad-ass Italian chefs who have that technique down pat.

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Place a swirly pile in a shallow bowl, and sprinkle over more Parmeggiano, and add another generous sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper. Et voila! Cacio e pepe alla Romana!

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Serve with roasted tomatoes on the side, which are simple to make. Slice the tomatoes thinly, and sprinkle over some slivered garlic. Toss with olive oil and dried basil, and roast at 425 for 30-35 minutes. Remove, let cool for about 15 minutes, then sprinkle over a dash of balsamic vinegar. Salt and pepper as you like.

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A dish fit for a Pope!

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado

The connection between food and sex is one I looked at in one of my very first blog posts, which you can read here if you’re so inclined. That connection is one of the major threads in this book, as well.

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In 1925 South America, Gabriela is a young woman from a terribly poor background who is “hired” by Nacib to do the cooking in his pub in the Brazilian town of Ilhéus. She is beautiful, from a very low social status, which was (and is) very important in the Brazilian culture. She has skin like cinnamon and gives off the scent of cloves, which entices everyone who meets her. Nacib is infatuated with her and they begin an intense love affair, which binds Nacib to her even more, because the connection between her cooking in the kitchen and her “cooking” in the bedroom have become intertwined in his mind. He marries her but then the challenges start.

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The concept of change and sexual politics are major themes in the book, the new overthrowing the old, and the old-school machismo personified in the beginning of the book, when Col. Mendonca kills his wife, Dona Sinhazinha and her lover, Dr. Pimentel, for adultery. Adultery is accepted among men, but God forbid a woman take a lover.

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What is ironic about the main tale of Nacib and Gabriela is that initially, she doesn’t fit his standard of what he believes he should have in a partner. She is beautiful, can cook like a dream, fulfills all of his sexual desires and fantasies, yet he is still held back by this expectation in his own mind that a relationship has to fit a certain mold. Ultimately, he realizes that he cannot change her, and in fact, to change her would be to lose the qualities about her he most loves.

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Passion colors every aspect of Gabriela’s life and it shows up in her food. Again, another book that features food as a type of medicine, a mood-altering substance that can make others feel joy, happiness, sexual passion and release. Gabriela’s passion is food – she puts everything she feels into her food, and by extension, everything she feels into life itself.

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She does not hold back her heart, and it is that openness that ultimately makes Nacib realize the value she brings to his life……and that in loving and accepting her as she is, it helps him love and accept himself and all the roiling changes happening around him. In her unchangeable passionate heart, she becomes his anchor and a catalyst for change in the entire town.

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Obviously, a book called Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon has some amazing food descriptions in it. Being set in Brazil with a cook as one of the main characters, the food is mouth-watering. Gabriela cooks Bahaian-style dishes involving manioc, rice, jerk chicken, shrimp, peanuts, bean fritters, stews………..so many delicious choices. This passage was the one I chose for today.

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Gabriela was loading an enormous tray with pastries, and another, larger still, with codfish balls, bean-paste balls flavored with onion and palm oil, and other tidbits.

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Bean-paste balls are a type of fritter made from black-eyed peas and called acaraje in Portuguese, and are usually stuffed with shrimp or something called vatapá, which has ground cashews as its base.  So I decided some shrimp-stuffed acaraje and vatapá were in order.

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INGREDIENTS
For the acaraje:
2 14-oz cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1 large white onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon sea salt
Teaspoon of cayenne powder
Red palm oil for frying

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For the vatapá:
1 cup dried shrimp
1 cup unsalted cashews
2 pieces of day old-bread, torn into chunks
3 cups coconut milk
2 tomatoes
1 onion
1 jalapeno pepper
1 piece of fresh ginger, peeled
3 scallions
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked shrimp, thawed

METHOD
Chop the onion and garlic in a food processor. Set aside.

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Mash the black-eyed peas in the same processor until it forms a thick paste. Season with salt and cayenne.

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Mix together with onion and garlic in a bowl. Form little round patties.

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Heat the red palm oil in a frying pan. Fry 4-5 fritters at a time, for about 3 minutes per side, until crispy and orange-red in color. Don’t cook more than that at a time, because it will lower the oil’s temperature and make the fritters greasy.

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Chop the cashews and process for another minute or so until well mixed and rendered down. Add the dried shrimp, mix and set aside.

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Soak the bread in a 1/2 cup of coconut milk for a minute. Then process for another minute, until it forms a paste-like texture. Mix with the cashew and shrimp in a separate bowl.

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Finely chop the tomato, onion, ginger, cilantro, scallions and jalapeno in your well-exercised food processor, and set aside.

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Heat the remaining coconut milk in a pan, and add the tomato-onion-cilantro mixture, then spoon in the shrimp-cashew mixture. Simmer gently at medium low for about 10 minutes, then add the bread mixture, and a tablespoon of red palm oil, for thickening and color. Cook for about half an hour, stirring occasionally.

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Top the stew with the shrimp and cilantro, and apply to your face. Delicioso!

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The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch

This is one of those books I would want with me if trapped on a desert island. The Wonder Worker has many levels, and is one of those wonderful stories that you return to again and again, always finding something new in the words.

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On the surface level, it’s a story about four everyday people and their lives at the London-based Anglican rectory of St. Benet’s Church. Nicholas Darrow is the rector of St. Benet’s, and along with his assistant priest Lewis Hall, they run the church and affiliated Healing Center. Alice Fletcher is their cook/housekeeper, and Rosalind Darrow is Nicholas’s wife and the ultimate match that sets the flame for the dramatic events that happen in the book. The story is told from their individuals viewpoints, and one of the things I like most about this book is how you see the same events through differing lenses, and you always empathize with each character, even if you hated them when reading about them from another character’s POV.

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On another level, this book is about spirituality and The Church of England, which might not sound like the greatest thrill in the world, but you’d be surprised. Howatch brings the rituals, beliefs and psychology of the Anglican Church vividly to life. Each of these four characters is in their own emotional or spiritual predicament, and it’s the combination of these four different emotional crises that bring the book to its very exciting and disturbing climax, involving a demonic possession! And who doesn’t love a demonic possession?

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On the deepest level, it’s about the power of love. Love has many facets, as we all know. What I took away was the understanding of true, unconditional love for another person. You don’t have to like the actions of the other person, and you certainly don’t have to condone their actions, in order to still love them. Alice is in love with Nicholas, though they never cross the line into adultery. Her initial feelings for him are romantic, schoolgirlish; she sees him through the rose-colored glasses of instant infatuation. When she begins to see his darker side, though, she still loves him and makes more of an effort to understand him. She accepts him always, even though some of his actions later in the book are appalling and she never condones them. It is this understanding and acceptance that helps her learn more about her own motivations and spirituality. She becomes a better person for loving him, and ultimately, it’s this unconditional love for him that transforms everyone else around them. And that is what spoke to my heart, that knowledge that true, unconditional love for another, can make you a better, stronger person. It definitely did me.

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Back to the book. Rosalind decides to cook an elegant dinner for herself and Nicholas when she visits St. Benet’s, somewhat under duress. She plans a civilized, gourmet meal during which they will dine, drink wine, and she will tell him she wants a divorce. What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

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“For the first course I had decided to do deep fried radicchio with goat’s cheese, a very tasty starter which apart from the final frying, can be prepared ahead of time……For the main course I had chosen roast guinea fowl.”

Guinea hen is what it’s called here in America, but I substituted Cornish game hens because that’s what I had stashed in the freezer and wanted to avoid an unnecessary trip to the grocery store. As well, I had some porcini mushrooms I’d bought awhile back and it occurred to me that their rich, bosky, reconstituted flavors would be fantastic with Cornish game hen, and grilled radicchio with a tasty twist. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
3 Cornish game hens, room temperature
3 strips of good quality, thick bacon
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 rib of celery, finely chopped
3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon truffle oil
Sea salt and pepper
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup chanterelle mushrooms
1 cup strong red wine
1 head red radicchio, cut into quarters
Olive oil
2 lemons
Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese

METHOD
Soak the porcini and chanterelle mushrooms in a cup of hot water each for about 30 minutes.

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Fry the bacon until crisp, and remove to a paper towel to drain. In the bacon juices, cook the shallots and garlic.

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Drain the mushrooms, but KEEP the liquid they’ve been soaking in. Chop the mushrooms and add them to the shallots, garlic and rosemary mixture. Crumble up the bacon and add it to the mixture as well.

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Season the insides and outsides of the Cornish game hens with salt and pepper. Stuff each cavity with a sprig of rosemary. Then add the mushroom-bacon stuffing.

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Slice a lemon thinly, and carefully tuck small slices between the Cornish hen skin and the meat. This helps tenderize and adds more flavor. Tuck the little birds into a casserole, pour over some olive oil, and squeeze over the juice of half a lemon. In a separate pan, combine the red wine, mushroom juices and a chicken bouillon cube. Whisk in about a tablespoon of cornstarch. Stir and cook constantly for 20 minutes. Pour the liquid over the birds, c0ver with a lid and cook stovetop for 30 minutes at medium. Heat the oven to 375.

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After 30 minutes on the stove, remove the lid and put the pan of birds into the oven to cook for another 40 minutes. You want them uncovered so the liquid reduces into a gravy, and the birds get crisp. Check them occasionally to make sure they don’t burn.

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While this is happening, grill your radicchio. Brush each quarter with olive oil, salt and pepper, and grill on a stovetop grill for about 5 minute per side, until those nice, black, charred marks show up. Squeeze over some lemon juice and grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

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Serve with any starch you’d like. I love black Japanese rice, so I cooked mine in a mixture of chicken and tomato broths, and garnished with slivered almonds.

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The result? Almost heavenly! The Church would approve.

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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