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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Possession by A.S. Byatt

For some reason, I’ve been feeling rather depressed lately. It comes on occasionally, and I try to overcome it with the comforts of reading, cooking, venturing out to new places, or writing. In poring over my library to find something that hopefully will help shake me out of my low spirits, I came across Possession, which I’d not read in a couple of years. A trip to the rainy British Isles seemed just the ticket.

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I’d forgotten what a great literary mystery this book is. It’s philosophical, analytical, and romantic all at once. Roland, the main character, is also feeling trapped in his career as a scholar and trying to find a place for himself both professionally and personally. He discovers two handwritten letters from a famous Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, written to a mysterious woman, and Roland becomes obsessed – possessed, you could say – in finding out who she is. His researches lead him to Professor Maud Bailey, another mysterious female. Together, they embark on a quest to learn not just who the “Dark Lady” in Ash’s life was, but how and why they met, and the outcome of their meeting. The book combines literary analysis with a sense of wonder in discovering something fresh in a world where, it seems, nothing is new. The pleasures of research, of reading, of taking one’s time, of discovery, are concepts to be savored and enjoyed.

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Upon Roland and Maud’s first meeting, she invites him to spend the night on her sofa, as his lack of money makes it impossible for him to find a hotel. She cooks him dinner and they begin their literary journey together. Their quest takes them to France, as well, where they begin to discover not just who the mystery woman is, but their feelings for each other, as well. I love both passages, so I decided to make two recipes – added solace for my rather low spirits.

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“Maud Bailey gave him potted shrimps, omelette and green salad, some Bleu de Bresse and a bowl of sharp apples. They talked about Tales for Innocents, which Maud said, were mostly rather frightening tales derived from Grimm and Tieck, with an emphasis on animals and insubordination.”

“During his stay he had become addicted to a pale, chilled, slightly sweet pudding called Iles Flottantes, which consisted of a white island of foam floating in a creamy yellow pool of vanilla custard, haunted by the ghost, no more, of sweetness.”

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Potted shrimps were something I’d never heard of, so I did some research and found that they are essentially shrimp cooked in clarified butter, and served generally as an appetizer. Making clarified butter was a new culinary challenge for me, but I was in need of distraction, so I gave it a go. Similarly, Iles Flottantes – floating islands or snowballs – were a new one for me, but I discovered that it is similar to the New Mexican dessert known as natillas, a vanilla custard. I decided that both recipes were in need of interpretation by yours truly, so here we go.

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INGREDIENTS
1 pound of unsalted butter
Muslin cloth or cheesecloth
1 pound of raw, deveined, shelled shrimp
1 shallot, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
Sea salt
1 teaspoon anchovy paste or two finely chopped anchovies
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or about half the juice of a large lemon

METHOD
Melt the butter under low heat. When completely melted, empty into a large, clear container. Allow to slightly cool, and as it does, use a spoon to scrape off the solids that form at the top. The milk solids will have sunk to the bottom of the container by then. Strain through muslin or cheesecloth, or just pour very carefully into another container, so that you get just the clear, golden melted fat solids. The end result should be this nice liquid that is ideal for cooking, as it can be used at very high temperatures without burning. Who knew?

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In a small skillet, heat some of the clarified butter, the shallot and garlic, sea salt, and the nutmeg, and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the anchovy paste and the lemon juice and cook for another minute.

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Add the raw shrimp to the pan with the other goodies, and cook briefly until the shrimp are pink. Divide this mixture into ramekins and cover with the clarified butter. The idea is to have the butter completely submerge the shrimp. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Remove, and spread on toast or crackers. Delish, very decadent, and quintessentially British.

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For the Iles Flottantes, which, rather serendipitously, were featured last night on a late-night rerun of that great old British cooking show, Two Fat Ladies. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the blonde half of that hilarious duo, made these using a chocolate custard, so I decided to try her method, adding a couple of flavoring twists of my own:

INGREDIENTS
6 eggs, separated
1/2 pint of whole milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, separated
4 ounces of dark, bittersweet chocolate, minimum 60% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract

Over low heat, slowly melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, then add the cinnamon and vanilla and stir.

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Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the egg whites, and beat until very stiff, like little meringues.

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In another saucepan, heat the milk until simmering, but don’t let it boil, or it will curdle. Put a spoonful of the beaten egg white onto the hot milk. The idea is to poach the egg white so that it cooks slightly and holds it shape. It’s one of those things that is much easier in concept than in execution. Anyway, do this two egg white cakes at a time. Remove them to a paper towel and drain while you make the chocolate-cinnamon-vanilla custard.

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Beat the egg yolks and the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Add the slightly cooled melted chocolate and the slightly cooled milk. The reason for allowing the chocolate and milk to cool is because if you don’t, you’ll end up with chocolate scrambled eggs. I mean, how gross is that? Delia Smith and Fanny Cradock would kill me! Anyway, stir this mixture together in the same double boiler under low heat, until it thickens to the texture of thin cream. Like this.

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Allow the chocolate custard to cool for about 5 minutes, then spoon into fancy glasses, top with the poached egg white, drizzle some of the remaining custard on top, and refrigerate for an hour, to set.

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Eat, then lie back and think of England. If you can still breathe, of course.

Talking To The Dead by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore has such a lush style of writing that you often don’t notice she’s sucking you into a maelstrom of subtle discord until it’s too late. Talking to the Dead is the first book by her I’d ever read and her literary style is absolutely amazing, combining the understated unease of family dynamics with the terror of repressed memories and the unacknowledged horror of how our childhoods can not only screw us up, but others as well.

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Nina, a London photographer, comes to stay with her sister, Isabel, who has just given birth to her first child. Isabel’s gay best friend Edward has also come to stay. Nina’s brother-in-law Richard soon starts playing a major role in her life as she cooks for her sister and begins remembering the mysterious death of her and Isabel’s infant brother. The descriptions of a long, hot, drought-ridden summer in England resonate with burning sunshine, apple trees dropping their fruit-laden branches, scalding rivers, and lush descriptions of food. Chicken risotto, rustic bread smeared with unsalted butter and homemade apricot preserves, cream-filled doughnuts, and an ultimately doomed celebratory feast featuring figs, couscous with goat cheese and roasted vegetables, and……..the soup. Keep reading. It gets better.

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This novel is one of those rare birds that feature wonderful writing, sensually lavish descriptions of food, and characters that are both unlikable and yet addicting in their dysfunction. Toward the end, a celebration dinner is planned and each character must cook a dish. Edward comes up with what sounded like garlicky, stinky heaven…….a shrimp and garlic soup, with coriander (cilantro to us desert flowers.) Nom nom nom! Garlic! Shrimp! Cilantro! A culinary holy trinity, as far as I’m concerned, and a smelling-to-high-heaven broth of deliciousness that you could feed to an angel. But don’t. Keep it for yourself and spoon it down with glee.

I’ll make a fish soup,” Edward says. “If we’re going into Brighton, I know a good fishmonger there. ‘Shrimp and garlic soup with coriander. It’s the fish soup that takes the time.”

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What a crock…….of soup!  This soup took no time at all, and the freshness of the ingredients, mixed with the strong saline flavor of shrimp, the heat of the garlic, and the pungent coriander, made this a true pleasure both to cook and to greedily eat.

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INGREDIENTS:
6 ounces of butter, preferably unsalted
6 ounces of flour
12-15 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons of cayenne pepper
6 cups of seafood stock
1 cup good white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1 chicken bouillon cube
1 tomato bouillon cube
2 bags raw shrimp, tails on
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
Bunch of cilantro

METHOD
Melt the butter slowly over low heat using a heavy-bottomed metal or cast-iron pot.

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Gradually incorporate the flour one spoonful at a time, whisking like crazy. You don’t want to add all the flour at once, because it will turn into one big, floury-tasting lump. And who wants to eat a ball of flour? Not I. I found the best method for amalgamating the flour into the butter was to whisk when each spoonful of flour went in, then stir with a wooden spoon. Add the cayenne pepper, and the two cubes of bouillon cubes, and stir to mix, so their flavors can mix and add to the roux.

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Slice the garlic into thin shards, saute them in a separate skillet to brown and bring out their flavors. Then add them to the roux.

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Increase heat to medium and slowly add the stock, continuing to whisk so that it mixes with the roux. Again, do this gradually and stir and whisk as you incorporate the liquid. Your soup will thank you.

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Simmer on low for about an hour so the flavors can mingle and mix, and you can enjoy the heady perfume of garlic, butter and roux. Add the white wine after about 30 minutes, so that it too, can flavor the broth. After the hour of cooking time, add the chopped cilantro and the lemon juice, and which will add even more scent to the broth. Allow to simmer another 10 minutes, then add the shrimp. These will not need long to cook, just until they turn pink.

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Garnish with a bit more fresh cilantro and eat with joy in your heart. This soup is soooooooo good, and perfect served with good, crusty bread and a glass of deep red wine. Enjoy!