Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Very much a fairy tale for adults, Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a London commuter who stops to help a young woman lying bleeding on the sidewalk one night, and finds himself in the alternate universe of London Underground. The parallels with Alice in Wonderland are fairly obvious – falling into an underground alternate reality, coming of age – yet this is a much darker and bloodier otherworld.

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Without giving too much away, the inverses in London Underground are pretty fascinating. Angels are evil, doors can be opened to anywhere, and the environment resembles more of a medieval estate than modern London. Richard goes through a significant transformation when he is there. He goes from being a young, rather naive man who is willing tolerate bad behavior from his fiancee because he simply thinks this is how it is, to having a mind and will of his own. He knows he is worthy of so much more, because he’s proven himself. In many ways, this book is a “bildungsroman” as it details his transformation from boy to man.

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In one passage, Richard and Door, the young woman he stopped to help and who essentially brought him to London Underground, wake up with ungodly hangovers from drinking heavenly wine with the Angel Islington. They’ve been found by Serpentine, a type of Amazon woman and part of a group of women who act as hunter/protectors and who, in her rough way, tries to help with the hangovers by feeding the two of them. Quite ironically, I too, woke up with a hangover this morning – my first in many years. I blame my friends Jake, Maggie and Heather, without whom I would not have overindulged in red wine last night. But we had a marvelous time, and this quiche can cure any hangover. It certainly did mine.

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“What is there to eat?” asked Hunter. Serpentine looked at the wasp-waisted woman in the doorway. “Well?” she asked. The woman smiled the chilliest smile Richard had ever seen cross a human face, then she said, “Fried eggs poached eggs pickled eggs curried venison pickled onions pickled herrings smoked herrings salted herrings mushroom stew salted bacon stuffed cabbage calves foot jelly – “

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While pickled eggs DO NOT have any kind of attraction for me, the savory tastes of fried eggs, salted bacon and mushrooms caught my attention. Remembering the wonderful fried tomatoes I had as part of a delicious morning meal when visiting London a few years ago, I decided a riff on the classic British breakfast was in order.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1.5 cups regular flour
4 tablespoons unsalted, chilled butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons chilled shortening, also cubed

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1/4 cup ice-cold water
5 slices of smoked bacon, good quality
4 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 carton sliced mushrooms
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup of half and half or heavy cream
2 large tomatoes, sliced
1 cup of grated cheese – I used a mixture of sharp cheddar and Monterey Jack

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METHOD

Gradually mix together the flour, the cubed butter and the cubed shortening until it forms a “rubbly” texture. I used my most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer with the pastry hook attachment. It’s important that your butter and shortening are cold cold cold.

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Gradually add the cold water until a dough is formed. Mine was sticky so I added a bit more flour to the mixer. Wrap the dough in plastic, form it into a ball and knead it a bit before refrigerating.

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Heat the oven to 375F. Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface. Don’t use your kitchen counter as you will have a mess and if you’re doing it recovering from a hangover, it will not make you happy. Trust me.

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Press the rolled-out dough into a pie pan. Chill it again for another 10 minutes. Poke a few holes in the bottom crust with a fork. Then bake the empty quiche shell for 10 minutes.

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While the crust is both chilling and baking, fry the bacon in a little bit of  olive oil. Remove and drain, then crumble.

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Cook the mushrooms, garlic powder and thyme leaves in the bacon oil for about 10 minutes. The smell is out of this world! But do watch out for spatters from the hot oil.

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In a separate bowl, add the eggs, salt and pepper. Whisk together, then add the slightly cooled mushrooms and the bacon. Add in the heavy cream and the cheese and whisk together again.

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Pour into the slightly baked quiche pieshell and top with the sliced tomatoes. Isn’t that pretty?

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Bake for up to 50 minutes, checking occasionally. When the crust is golden-brown, that’s usually when it’s ready. The filling will have set, and the smell of the mushrooms and the savory scent of roasting tomatoes will also give you a hint.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and serve in generous slices. Accompany it with a hibiscus cocktail, which is champagne and cranberry juice, very necessary “hair of the dog” for a hangover. The flavors are luscious – the sharp cheese, the savory tomatoes, the salty bacon and the nicely set eggs, set off by the bosky taste of the mushrooms.

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Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

This is a bizarre, surreal, and very captivating read. I’d read The Time Traveler’s Wife a few years ago by the same author, and although I enjoyed it greatly, it didn’t grab me the way this one has. Her Fearful Symmetry is one of the strangest and compelling ghost stories I’ve read in ages, although I warn you now that you’ll need some MAJOR suspension of disbelief to keep going.

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About six chapters in, I thought this was a lovely, well-written, and poignant love story about a woman – Elspeth – who dies (literally in the first chapter so no spoilers) and whose spirit is confined to her apartment. In life, she leaves this apartment and her money to her two identical twin nieces, Valentina and Julia, who must live in the apartment for a year before selling it, and come to experience their aunt’s ghost in some very unusual ways. Elspeth’s lover, Robert, lives in the same building, mourning her and working at the creepy and haunted Highgate Cemetery right outside the apartment. There are some other fascinating characters: Martin and Marikje; Edie who is twin’s mother and Elspeth’s own estranged identical twin; and Jack, the twin’s father.

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However, when I finished the book, I was torn. How to describe a book that is so gorgeously and atmospherically written and with characters that are mostly so very unlikeable? My perception of many of them definitely shifted as I kept reading. Robert, who in the beginning seemed a tragic and romantic hero, ended up being a weak and wimpy ass. Elspeth and Edie – well, all I have to say is, I’m glad I never had a twin. And Valentina and Julia’s own twisted and symbiotic relationship leads to the pivotal action in the book. There are family secrets, twin-swapping, body switching, ghostly conversations held through an Ouija board and written on dusty furniture, and the haunted apartment itself that to me, seemed like it must be drapery-shrouded, pale gray and blue, cold and mysterious overlooking the graves of Highgate.

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I’d suggest reading it, certainly. Niffenegger writes so beautifully and poignantly about life, love, death, and her brand of magical realism can turn even a modern-day London apartment into a spooky, gloomy, Gothic place of magic. I think what was difficult for me was the ease with which the characters completely accepted events that were not just bizarre, but completely outside the realm of reality. I get that it’s magical realism, but magical realism needs to have whimsy and sensuality to make it work. Here, the magic is there, the supernatural is there, but against a backdrop of rain-spattered windows, takeout containers, and a ghostly cat called Kitten of Death. The eerie and the mundane.

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Robert, grieving after Elspeth’s death, finds himself drawn to Valentina (how Freudian, right) and proceeds to court her, starting the process that ends in the most major plot twist. Part of his courting involves showing her and Julia – who dislikes him for taking her twin away – around Highgate Cemetery, where he brings them both lunch one afternoon, in a true clash of cultural vocabulary.

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“I’m fine. Thanks for bringing lunch, this is good.” Say something nice, Julia. “Yeah, really good. What are we eating?” “Prawn-mayonnaise sandwiches.” The twins inspected the insides of their sandwiches. “It tastes like shrimp,” said Julia. “You would call it a shrimp-salad sandwich. Though I’ve never understood where the salad idea comes into it.”

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Shrimp and mayonnaise together are a foodie match made in heaven, and though I omitted the bread, I still wanted to recreate the taste of prawns in homemade mayonnaise, so I came up with this tasty treat. I had some black olives to use up, so those got added to the mix. Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the homemade mayonnaise:
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
3/4 cup olive oil
1 cup finely chopped black olives
1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
Fresh basil

For the grilled shrimp:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
7 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons dried red chili flakes
1 lemon
Fresh basil
Fresh Italian parsley
3 dozen thawed shrimp

METHOD
Firstly, don’t let anyone tell you making homemade mayonnaise is hard. It’s not, it’s just time-consuming. Note: make sure all ingredients are at room temperature.

Whisk the egg yolk, the Dijon mustard, the white wine vinegar, the lemon juice and the salt, and then very slowly, drop by drop, add the olive oil and use a hand mixer to mix.

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Whisk it for 5-10 minutes as you add in each drop of oil, until the mayonnaise starts to thicken and emulsify. You’ll see and feel it, and I promise you the end result will be so worth it.

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Mix in the black olives, the sun-dried tomatoes, and the basil, stir to mix, taste for seasoning, and chill until ready to use.

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Melt the butter in a small saucepan, and add the garlic. Stir and cook for about 5 minutes, then add the red chili flakes, the juice of the lemon, and the rest of the chopped basil, and lightly saute for another 5 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.

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Heat a ridged cast-iron grill pan to high. Slice the shrimp lengthwise down the middle and remove the vein. Season with salt and pepper and a bit more red chili flakes.

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Place the shrimp into the hot grill pan, grill for 3-4 minutes until the shrimp becomes pink, then quickly add in the cooked garlic, basil and parsley.

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Remove immediately from the heat. Pour over the remainder of the melted garlicky butter, and sprinkle with the remainder of the fresh chopped basil and parsley. Serve with the mayonnaise on a platter. Not only is it delicious, it’s extremely beautiful to look at as well. A treat any ghostly spirit or human might enjoy.

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The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam

In October, my thoughts don’t turn to pumpkin spice láttes, autumn leaves falling gently to the ground, or the evocative scent of woodsmoke. No, when the fall brings that nippy chill to the air, this girl thinks haunted houses, ghosts, spirits (the non-alcoholic kind), and of course, Halloween!

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Being the season of the witch and all things creepy and supernatural, The House of Lost Souls is the perfect book to curl up with and frighten yourself. The first book by author F.G. Cottam that I ever read, it’s a quick read that brings vividly to life the literal and figurative spirits haunting Paul Seaton in modern-day London.

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Paul spent 10 years of his life trying to forget the horrors he experienced at the Fischer House, where he ventured in search of information about the elusive Pandora Gibson-Hoare, a 1920s photographer who is the topic of his girlfriend’s university thesis. In his research, he learns of Pandora’s involvement with the occult, Aleister Crowley – because what occult book DOESN’T feature Crowley – and Pandora’s ill-fated attempts to stop the evil at the Fischer House in the years before WWII. He is sucked back into the drama by Nick Mason, whose younger sister went to the Fisher House as part of her own university studies and who also experiences terrifying events that nearly drive her to suicide.

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Not your typical haunted house tale, the story focuses on the demons and ghosts that haunt us as individuals, and the choices we make as a result.  There is some musing on the ephemeral nature of evil and how it translates to concrete action in the material world. In other words, “we are spirits, in the material world,” with apologies to Sting. But we are all haunted in some way, I think, just as Paul is. He’s an Everyman character in that he’s not particularly heroic or brave. He’s driven as much by guilt from the past as he is curiosity about the exact nature of evil and the Fischer House, and an obsession for the long-dead Pandora.

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In his early days of research as a journalist, when he is on the trail of Pandora’s final days, he bribes a fellow reporter Mike for information on her death with a lunch at Arthur’s Cafe, known for its delicious mixed grill dishes.

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In the beige decor and stifling heat of the cafe, Mike worked through the mixed grill Arthur had ordered on his behalf while Seaton neglected a plate piled high with meat lasagne. He sipped from his glass of Coke.

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Not having ever had a mixed grill, I learned it is typically a dish that includes two or three grilled meats such as chops, steak, and sausage, grilled onions, grilled tomatoes, and possibly grilled mushrooms and a fried egg. I chose instead to make a mixed grill that included grilled steak, a grilled pork chop, a grilled sausage, and grilled tomatoes and onions, because to me, there is nothing as delicious as a huge pile of grilled onions atop a nice slab of meat.

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Vegetarians, turn away now. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 sausage link of your choice
1 5 oz. tenderloin steak
1 5 oz. pork chop
1 large Beefsteak tomato
1 large white or yellow onion
2 tablespoons butter

METHOD
Heat the butter and melt it in a stovetop grill with ridge marks. This is preferable for stovetop cooking, as your food gets those nice cooking ridge marks. Add your sausage. Yes, it’s very phallic. Don’t write in.

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Add your steak.

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Add your chop. Sprinkle salt on the chop and the steak, and dab a bit of butter on all three meats.

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Cook on medium heat for approximately 20 minutes, turning every 5-7 minutes to ensure even cooking and those aforementioned grill marks. How well cooked you want your meat is completely up to you, so you may want to adjust heat or length of time, or take one piece off the grill while cooking others.

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Remove the meat to a plate to rest and let the juices run back in, and slice your onion into thick rings. Add to the smoking hot grill. Being so thick, they will take a bit of time to cook, so be patient.

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Slice the tomato into thick rounds, roughly the same size as the onions. Lay them on the grill, and cook for about 10-15 minutes, turning twice to get even grill marks.

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Assemble your plate of British goodness and apply directly to your face. And yes, that is indeed a little pug in the top photo. It’s my new fur baby Roxie, whom I adore and love to pieces. October, in addition to being the Season of the Witch, is also Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, so I adopted her. She’s awesome!

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Another photo of my Roxanna Banana, also known as Roxy, and one of me, very happy to have her with me, as you can see her loafing in the background.

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A Scandal in Bohemia (Sherlock Holmes) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Thanks to JRB for the photography.

Who doesn’t love the adventures of the erstwhile Sherlock Holmes, and his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson? So ingrained in our culture are these two literary detectives that the image of a deerstalker cap and pipe, the phrase “elementary, my dear Watson,” and the address 221-B Baker Street in London, need no other explanation.

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I first read the stories of Sherlock Holmes when I was eight, finding a leatherbound collection of tales in my father’s library. As my readers probably know, I inherited his books when he died, and among his wonderful treasures was the collection of tales about Holmes and Watson.

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SPOILER AHEAD! My favorite Holmes tale is “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” just because it’s such a great story, and of course, I love dogs, so it was sad at the end when the poor “demonic” hound was killed. My second favorite Holmes tale is “A Scandal in Bohemia,” because this is where we meet Irene Adler, the only woman to gain a hold on Sherlock Holmes’ mind and heart. In fact, the opening line of this story says it all……..“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” I think we all have that one person in our lives who is THE person for us. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, why certain people get such a hold in our hearts and minds, but hell, if a detective with a mind like a steel trap can have feelings like that, the rest of us mere mortals should be excused for having those emotions, too.

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Anyway, the storyline is pretty basic. The King of Hungary comes to Holmes’ house in disguise and hires him to get back a photo of he and the self-same Irene Adler, with whom the King had an affair a few years earlier. Now engaged to a young woman of a very prim and proper family, the scandal that would ensue should it be known the King had a liaison with such a woman as Irene Adler would be momentous. So Holmes and Watson proceed to find out where Irene Adler is, follow her through a few adventures, and in the process, Holmes falls in love with her, though it’s never explicitly stated. She is able to outwit him at the end, earning his respect and regard and of course, his eternal infatuation with her.

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I always like it when a woman outwits a man. It’s the feminist in me. Anyway, when Holmes recruits Watson to find Irene Adler with him, they first have a nice little repast, as Holmes has been so wrapped up solving mental puzzles and taking cocaine that he has forgotten to eat. Yes, our detective was a cocaine addict. You didn’t know that?

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“I heard no more. They drove away in different directions, and I went off to make my own arrangements.” “Which are?” “Some cold beef and a glass of beer,” he answered, ringing the bell. I have been too busy to think of food, and I am likely to be busier still this evening. By the way, Doctor, I shall want your co-operation.”

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I don’t like cold beef, and am not much of a beer drinker. But, beef cooked in beer? I could totally get behind that. Carbonnade is a very well-known method of cooking meat in beer, because it tenderizes the meat so beautifully, and if you use a Belgian ale, you have carbonnade a la Flamande. Yeah, whatever. It sounded good. This is the method that worked for me, based on Saveur.com’s delicious recipe, but with some flavoring tweaks of my own, and using Belgian “saison” ale recommended by my good friend Jake, who is a liquor guru and an overall pretty cool guy.

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INGREDIENTS
2 lb. beef chuck, cut into 2″ x 12″-thick slices
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper for seasoning
14 cup flour
4 tablespoons butter
4 slices bacon, finely chopped

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6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 yellow onion, sliced into thin half moons
1 shallot, cut similarly

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2 cups Belgian saison ale
1 cup beef stock
1 beef bouillon cube
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons yellow mustard
2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
4 sprigs fresh tarragon
Handful fresh parsley
3 bay leaves

METHOD
Season beef with salt and pepper in a bowl. Then, toss the meat in the flour so it’s lightly coated.

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Heat the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the meat and brown it. You will probably need to brown in 2-3 batches, for about 8-10 minutes per batch.

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Set meat aside on a plate, and add the bacon to the pan. Cook for the same amount of time, so that the bacon fat renders down. The smell is heavenly!

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Finely mince the garlic, and toss that into the pan, and fling in the onions and shallots. Again, a scent from heaven.

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Put in half the Belgian ale, stir a bit, and scrape any bits from the pan bottom, which will add to the flavor. Reduce the beer for about 5-6 minutes.

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Add the meat to the pot, and pour over the rest of the ale. It foams up so beautifully, and the hoppy smell just adds a perfect note to the meat.

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Put in the stock, the bouillon cube, the brown sugar, the apple cider vinegar, the herbs and more salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, give it a stir, then lower the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 1 and 1/2 hours. Add the mustard and Worchestershire sauce about 15 minutes before serving.

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Decant into bowls, and serve with some nice, crusty bread and lovely red wine. The vinegar and sugar really add a delicious and unique note that contrasts beautifully with the beer, which tenderizes the meat wonderfully well.

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As Holmes himself might say, it’s elementary, my dear readers!

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Thanks to TB for the photography.

For some reason, the Harry Potter books always evoke Christmas and the winter holidays, no matter what time of year I read them in or what time of year is represented in the books.

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I suppose it’s because these books, ostensibly for kids, are also a wonderful read for adults. They transport you into this magical world of wizards, wands, spells, Sorting Hats, magicians, and yet are still so based in the reality of a kid’s everyday life. The first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is as talented in describing magical spells, Quidditch, fantastic beasts and an otherwise enchanted world, as it is the realities we all went through on the first day of school, making new friends, learning new subjects, dealing with family difficulties. We can all relate, and it’s this sense of magic combined with the poignant sense of familiar that make J.K. Rowling’s books so successful. The movies don’t hurt, either.

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Sparky the Wonder Pug models his Christmas hat, which resembles the Sorting Hat from Hogwarts. At least, I think it does.

There is a huge amount of food in the Harry Potter books, and of a great variety. Chipolata sausages, roast chicken, trifles, butterbeer, candy with fantastical names such as Bertie Botts Every Flavor jellybeans, Acid Pops and Chocolate Frogs; black pudding, eggs and toast, roast beef, soups, fruits, nuts, desserts, ice cream, platters of vegetables………….it’s overwhelming in its excess, but I also think the variety of food discussed, in a way, is symbolic of the variety of characters in the book. Each has his or her own unique personalities and tastes, and as such, so the food represents them in a sense. Harry, who grew up in a deprived and dysfunctional family unit, savors such simple foods as roast chicken and potatoes, because he is finally allowed to eat as much as he wants.

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I do love the scene on the Hogwarts Express train when the trolley-lady offers them all sorts of goodies, including pumpkin pasties, and Harry trades one for one of Ron’s rather gross corned beef sandwiches. Pasties are like what we call an empanada here in New Mexico, and which I think are ubiquitous in every culture. Meat or vegetables or fruit or any other type of filling, enclosed in a pastry shell, making a little hand-held pie.

Ron stared as Harry brought it all back in to the compartment and tipped it onto an empty seat. “Hungry, are you?” “Starving,” said Harry, taking a large bite out of a pumpkin pasty. Ron had taken out a lumpy package and unwrapped it. There were four sandwiches inside. He pulled one of them apart and said “She always forgets I don’t like corned beef.” “Swap you for one of these,” said Harry, holding up a pasty. “Go on……….”

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Having become more and more confident in my pastry-making ability this past year, I decided pumpkin pasties with homemade pastry would be my challenge this day. Not liking sweets much, I wondered how savory pumpkin pasties, with a hint of garlic, might taste.

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As well, I recently wrote a piece for the website New Mexico Nomad about the wonderful history of the Franzoy family in Southern New Mexico and their chile company, Young Guns Produce, and as part of the article, I was a lucky duck who got to taste their chile. I was dying to incorporate it into a recipe, and started thinking about pumpkin and red chile. So although no one in Harry Potter’s world likely ever had New Mexico red chile, I combined them in this recipe. Just think of it as my contribution to multiculturalism.

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As previously noted, pasties are very similar to empanadas, so I used my Nana Jean’s empanada dough recipe, which is 2 1/2 cups of flour, a pinch of salt, a stick of cold butter cut up into cubes, an egg, 1/3 cup ice-cold water, and a spoonful of white vinegar; then you incorporate the butter into the flour and salt until it looks like rubble, and slowly add in the liquid ingredients which have been mixed together.

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If you have a Kitchen Aid, use the pastry hook to mix and it will form the dough ball for you, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate for up to 2 hours before rolling out. Super easy. The filling recipe is all mine. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
2 sugar pumpkins, roasted and cubed

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1 container Young Guns Produce red chile sauce
5 cloves of garlic
1 cup herbed goat cheese
Pastry/empanada dough
1 egg, beaten with a bit of salt

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F.

Puree the roasted pumpkin cubes by putting into a food processor and pulsing until a thick puree forms.

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Heat the red chile sauce. Grate in the garlic cloves and add salt. Taste for seasoning. Chile sauce is so much a matter of individual taste that I highly recommend you taste as you go. Some people add onions, some people put in garlic, some folks like to add beef or chicken or pork drippings to boost the flavor. Really, it’s up to you.

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Roll out the dough on a floured cutting board and cut into large circles using a coffee cup or circle-shaped cookie cutter.

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Mix the pureed pumpkin with the goat cheese, and taste. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

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Pour over the garlic-scented red chile sauce a little at a time, and mix well to incorporate.

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Put about a tablespoon of the pumpkin mixture into each dough circle.

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Dampen the edge of dough, and fold over so that you have a half-moon shape. Traditionally, you would crimp the edges to seal the pasty. However, I cannot for the life of me master the damn crimp action, so I went the easy way and used a fork.

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Brush each pumpkin pasty with some egg, and pop those bad boys into the oven.

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Bake for 15-20 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When they are golden-brown on top, and the heavenly scent of pumpkin and goat cheese and the sunny smell of red chile waft through the kitchen, take the pasties out of the oven and allow to cool.

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I have to say, these are probably my proudest creation. They tie in with my own New Mexico culture, they are a nod to my grandmother’s baking techniques, yet they incorporate a more modern flavor combination, and best of all, they tie in with the magical world of Harry Potter and Christmas. Plus, they are damn delicious!

 

The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch

Dedicated to RP, without whom this book would not have the meaning it does. Thank you for the life lessons.

 

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 I didn’t have a spare kidney to sell this week to buy one. As well, I had some wonderful dried mushrooms stashed in my refrigerator, waiting for a moment of inspiration, and it struck me that their 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

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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. I used Cabernet Sauvignon
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.