A Non-Food/Non-Book Post

I very rarely post here about anything other than food and books. Those are, after all, the reason for this blog to exist. However, life itself refuses to stay neatly within the confines of my blog topics, and often, the messiness that exudes affects my desire and ability to write the blog. So I figured that perhaps a confessional vent might help me regain some perspective and get back into my writing groove.

It’s funny how something that you take for granted, something that you experienced long ago, can come back and hit you in the heart at a different time in your life. Let me explain.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with “R” for nearly 15 years. It’s a very long and complicated story, but the one thing that I was always 100% certain about was my love for him. It survived lies, betrayal, heartbreak, rage, abandonment…….this feeling for him was like the flame of a candle inside my heart. It never went out. The best way I can describe it was a small warmth that was perpetually alight inside me. It flickered, it wavered, it flamed in intense heat, but it never vanished, never went out. It was perpetual. It didn’t mean that what he did was OK; it simply meant I knew him for who he was and loved him not just in spite of his faults and imperfections but also because of them.

A few weeks ago, I texted R that I’d be in his neighborhood and had something to drop off at his house and would he be there? No response. I arrived at his house and when walking up to the front door, I noticed that the security door was closed but that the inner door was open and I could smell cooking and hear voices. So I rang the bell. He came to the door, with a rather guarded look on his face, and closed the door behind him and came out to the patio. His only words were “I have someone here with me.”

Like I said, my feelings for him have survived tornadoes of emotion, tsunamis of rage, anger, love, friendship. This was not the first time I had found out he is incapable of being faithful. Part of my very complex feelings for him are based on me realizing that it’s possible to love a highly flawed human being and it’s possible to understand their reasons for acting the way that they do, without accepting it or justifying it. In other words, I am the last person R has ever needed to lie to, then and now. It doesn’t make it ok, but knowing his bad side and his good, I think I probably know him better than any other person on this planet, precisely because I have seen both sides and see how they have shaped the man he is. So in this case, the feelings were familiar – anger, frustration, betrayal, pain, heartbreak – but there was something different now. Bewilderment. Why? After all this time, after all the years and everything that’s happened between us, after 15 years of friendship and laughter and passion and emotion and anger and hard-won trust and easily broken trust and loss and rage, why? Why?

Why do you still have to lie to me after so many years? We have been friends. We were friends long before anything else developed between us. The friendship is what survived when nothing else seemed to. We went through some very intense life experiences with each other, because of each other, without each other. We went an entire year with no contact, and in his words “during that dark year when we had no contact,” it solidified the fact that neither of us was willing or able to fully let the other one go. Call it dysfunctional, call it messed up, call it addiction, call it fucked up. You’d be right. Believe me when I say that everything and anything you could throw my way about R has already been said and done and internalized by me more times than anyone might realize.

But this time, something broke inside of me. It sounds either very dramatic or very simple. I felt it, like the snapping of a flower stem when you pull it from the bush.

My mother died of lung cancer last October. My first love S. died a month later from complications related to liver cancer. These people represented aspects of me that I didn’t even fully realize were there until they were gone. R had told me that he wanted to be there for me in the aftermath of losing my mother and losing S, because he had not been there for previous losses in my life. When my beloved grandmother died in 2010, R was on work assignment in in West Texas, not too far away from where we buried her, but he said, and I quote, “I have too much work to do.”  When my dear grandfather died in 2013, again the same excuse from R. “I’m too busy.” Him being too busy to be there for me is the significant theme of our relationship, but like anyone who loves someone else deeply and who hasn’t had healthy relationships modeled in life, I learned to live in perpetual hope.

Maybe this time it will be different. Maybe this time something will shift.

I truly believed that when my mom died and when S died, and when R specifically that he wanted to be there for me, that this cosmic shift had happened. It felt different this time, he seemed different, more open to being there for me, he wanted to attend my mom’s memorial service, he was there for me emotionally in a way that I hadn’t previously ever experienced with him. As I said, I had hope.

Over the past few months, the upheavals of losing my mother, of losing my first love without having been able to say goodbye to him, so many workplace upheavals and uncertainties, the sadness and depression and anger and grief of losing these people who were so pivotal in making me the woman I am today……..has all culminated into what’s been the worst and hardest time in my adult life. And this final act of betrayal, this lying by omission, this repetition of the same pattern of behavior that R has followed for nearly 15 years and that I have, in many ways, allowed………….something has finally shifted.

That cosmic shift that I thought had happened in the aftermath of losing my mother is, in fact, a cosmic shift inside of my heart where R is concerned.

Going back to taking something for granted that’s been around a long time, I’ve found myself listening over and over to Bruce Springsteen, in particular the album Tunnel of Love. It popped up on my Spotify suggestions and for some reason, I listened to the entire album and then immediately listened again and then again. It’s really amazing how something that was written 30 years ago still resonates today, and even stranger, it resonates in a way that it never has with me. The album is about romantic love and all of its permutations. Romance, marriage, betrayal, lies, cheating, divorce. I think what resonates so powerfully with me is the song Brilliant Disguise. I love this song and have loved it since it came out but I never fully internalized the lyrics. Now I can’t get them out of my head.

“I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust. ‘Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself.”

That hits me in the heart every single time I hear it, and even more poignantly now. Can there be anything worse than self-doubt when you realize that the thing, the concept, the person on which you built a foundation is in fact, just a mirage?

“God have mercy on the man, who doubts what he’s sure of.”

The idea of not truly knowing the person you love is a powerful one. I never thought the foundation of what I felt for R would ever shift. I was sure of what I felt for him, right or wrong. It lasted over a decade, and in many ways, I felt like we’d been to war together and against each other, and come out on the other side still connected. In many ways, going through hell with someone creates a stronger bond than going through the easy times. Now…….I feel not only like that connection has been severed, ripped, mangled and torn, but I feel crippling self-doubt. How could I have built this foundation of love on this person? I thought I knew him. I knew his ugly side, I knew his dishonest, judgemental side, I knew his kindness and his intelligence and his love for his sons………..and I truly believed that he knew me and knew that I was the one person to whom he never had to lie.

 “When I look in your eyes, is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?”

How can we ever know if the person we love is not just a figment of our own desires and projections? More to the point, how do we recover from having this foundation blasted out from under ourselves and destroyed? In many ways, it’s like a death and I feel the same grief I have been dealing with in losing my mother, in losing my first love, in the loss of belief in myself, in the loss of a certain security in my job, and in the loss of this foundational belief in this man who has been one of the greatest influences in my adult life.

The entire album Tunnel of Love conceptualizes this evolution of love. The song One Step Up and Two Steps Back details the breakdown of a marriage, the death of commitment and infidelity. That entire song seems to sum up so much between R and I, even though we were never married. But in a way, I feel as though what has ended between us is like the death of a marriage because it does feel like a death in my heart.

Giving each other some hard lessons lately, but we ain’t learning. We’re the same sad story, that’s a fact. One step up and two steps back.

That is R and I to a tee. We come back to each other, we seem like we’re working toward something good, and then he pulls away and retreats back inside his damaged heart, and I am left wondering what happened and nursing a broken heart and realizing that we are still in the same place we always were. It’s a pattern we followed for so long, and there was always certain comfort in the familiarity of it, even though it tore me into pieces when things came to their inevitable and familiar end. Even now, when this connection has been severed once and for all, the sense of loss is as intense as the relief.

Forgive the confessional tone in this post. I didn’t realize how strong the need was to get all of this out. Thanks for reading.

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

In honor of this month’s Fandom Foodie recipe takeover, of which I am the host and the theme of which is food based on Mexican literature and/or inspired by Day of the Dead – el Dia de los Muertos – as well as my adoration for this marvelous book Like Water for Chocolate, I decided to recreate the stuffed poblano peppers that Tita, the main character, makes for a wedding near the end of the book. This wonderful novel, which features a collection of recipes from turn-of-the-century Mexico, is also a sweet and tender love story, and also details the history, secrets, lies and loves of the De La Garza family.

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I loved this book as much for the cooking and luscious food descriptions as for the familiar family problems outlined. The bossy, mean matriarch of the family, her three daughters who play the traditional roles – for awhile, anyway – and the absent father. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of my own family dynamic growing up, and though we didn’t grow up on a farm near the Texas/Mexico border and though my sisters and I took care of my mother during her last illness and though there was love between all of us, there was still a painful dynamic at work in our coming-of-age. I would characterize my late mother’s relationship with her three daughters as complex.

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Back to the book. It’s a compendium of marvelous recipes such as quail with rose petal sauce, Christmas rolls stuffed with delicious ground meat, and a few other interesting variants. But for me, my ultimate, favorite recipe in this book (and my favorite food in Mexican cuisine) is the stuffed pepper. This particular recipe is called chiles en nogada. Here in my home state of New Mexico, stuffed peppers are called chiles rellenos, and different kinds of chile peppers can be used, which you stuff with cheese, then lightly coat in batter and fry.

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“The chiles not only looked good, they were indeed delicious – never before had Tita done such a marvelous job with them. The platters of chiles proudly wore the colors of the flag: the green of the chiles, the white of the nut sauce, and the red of the pomegranates.”

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What’s nice about this particular recipe is that it doesn’t call for frying and you really can play around with the stuffing and flavors. Roasting and steaming the peppers and removing their skins is time-consuming, so this is one of those things you make with an entire afternoon to while away and want to really enjoy the creative process of cooking.

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Traditionally, this recipe uses only poblano chiles, but I wanted to honor my New Mexico heritage, so I threw a couple of Hatch green chiles into the mix, and made a few additional tweaks, which I will detail below. Serve with icy-cold Mexican beer or, my personal preference, a nice, sipping shot of good-quality tequila, or indeed, with a nice deep red wine. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

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INGREDIENTS
4 poblano chiles
2 Hatch green chiles
3/4 lb of ground beef, preferably 90% lean
1 cup of walnuts, toasted in a dry, hot pan
Sea salt
Half a finely diced red onion
3 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 cup blue cheese crumbles (my twist on flavoring)
1 cup Cotija cheese crumbles
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (use sparingly)
1 cup Mexican crema
1 cup pomegranate anils

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METHOD
Turn on the oven broiler. When super hot, rub olive oil on the six chile peppers, put them on a flat baking tray, and roast them about 10-15 minutes, turning every 5 minutes so the peppers blacken on all sides. Remove from the oven and seal in an airtight plastic bag, and cover with a warm, damp cloth. The steam will further cook the peppers and make the skins easier to peel (in theory.)

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While the peppers are roasting and cooling, cook the ground beef, seasoning with salt, a bit of black pepper and a bit of cinnamon. When cooked through, remove to a plate and cook the onions and the garlic with a bit more salt until soft and translucent. Add the cooked ground beef to the onions and stir to mix again. Let cool slightly, then add the blue cheese crumbles and the Cotija crumbles to the meat-onion mixture. Add a large tablespoon of the toasted walnuts to the mixture, and stir so that everything is well mixed.

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Take the cooked, skinned peppers and make a slit down the middle. Rub some oil, grapeseed or olive, onto your hands like you’re putting on hand lotion. This will keep the seeds from burning your hands as you remove the stem and seeds from the chiles. Rinse and let dry.

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Put the Mexican crema, half the toasted walnuts, the rest of the blue cheese, a spoonful of the Cotija cheese, salt, pepper and another small bit of cinnamon, into a blender and blend until you have a smooth, creamy sauce.

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Fill the roasted, peeled chiles with the meat-onion-walnut-cheese mixture. Cover with the velvety white cream sauce, and garnish with pomegranates and the rest of the toasted walnuts. They are truly delicious, very subtle flavoring from the cinnamon which lightly offsets the tangy cheese and heat of the chiles.

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Not to mention they are simply gorgeous to behold!

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I didn’t read this book until just a few months ago, and I could kick myself for not having devoured it sooner. Such a marvelous universe, this alternate world of circuses and magic and love. It actually put me in mind of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, in that sense of whimsical magic and a slightly odd world similar to our own, but one much more unusual, spellbinding and mystical.

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Celia and Marco are the proverbial star-crossed lovers, though in this case, they are also opponents in a seemingly eternal game of spells and magic set in a mysterious circus. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been fascinated with the circus. It’s always had a dreamlike, slightly off-kilter sense to me, the striped tents, the calliope music, the death-defying feats of acrobats and contortionists swinging high above or twisting themselves into improbable shapes…..and the ringmaster himself, whip in hand. (In fact, if you’re into circuses and the unusual and/or supernatural, you’ll love the podcast The Magnus Archives, which has a very creepy and weird circus as a main storyline, so give it a listen if so inclined.)

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The circus itself appears overnight, with its attendant staff. Black and white and red are its colors, and it is the backdrop for Marco and Celia, who initially do not realize they are meant to be in opposition to each other, to perform their illusions and spells. They have been trained since they were children for the competition by their respective father figures, both of whom are total and complete bastards. Of course, they fall in love but it’s not a love that is easy nor does their path run smoothly. Well, it never does, does it?

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It’s not a romance, though the love story at its heart is pivotal for the book. With the circus called Le Cirque des Rêves – Circus of Dreams – it would be more accurate to say it’s a gorgeous, dreamlike swathe of crimson velvet words, ice clouds of images, mystical spells that turn clothing into birds, and just an overall sense of magic and mystery. Even the more minor characters are lushly described, and all play a key role in how the ultimate destiny of the circus comes about. Chandresh is one of these side characters who plays a huge part in the outcome. He hosts divine midnight dinner parties for many of the book’s magicians, bringing together the main characters in some of the most sumptuously described food passages I’ve read in ages.

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The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers. Often diners remark that they are too pretty, too impressive to eat, but they always find a way to manage.

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So the figs. Oh, the figs. A delicacy that I can only get a few times in the early autumn, I had to do something with this amazing fruit that I love so much. Not being much of a sweets eater, I thought something more savory would be delightful. Hence, prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese and glazed with a bourbon-butter sauce seemed a simple, yet delectably delicious way to enjoy this amazing fruit.

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INGREDIENTS
6 fresh figs
12 slices prosciutto
1 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup bourbon whiskey
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Sea salt for sprinkling

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Slice each fig in half lengthwise, to make 12 fig halves.

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Using a melon baller, scoop out some of the fig.

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Stuff each fig opening with a teaspoon of blue cheese.

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Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each stuffed little fig.

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Repeat with the other figs, and lay out on a baking tray.

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Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the prosciutto crisps and you can smell the mingled scents of sweet fig, salty prosciutto. and and savory cheese oozing together.

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While the figs are baking, melt the butter and brown sugar and add the bourbon. Cook on high and make a reduction of thick, luscious brown syrup.

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Remove figs from oven, and gently pour the bourbon syrup over them, and sprinkle over some sea salt. Allow to cool, and cram down your throat. You could say they’re magically delicious!

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Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

I was going to avoid any type of love story for Valentine’s Day this year, but I decided that was rather cynical of me, since expressing love for someone is one of the best and bravest things anyone can do in this world. That being said, I loathe and despise mush. I love genuine gestures of caring, friendship and love that are spontaneous and come from the heart, and that oftentimes, are completely unplanned, but sappy gush? Hell no.

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A kiss on the hand, a light stroking of hair, an unexpected embrace, even a quick smack on the ass while I’m cooking – these gestures of affection are so treasured by me when they are given. But sappy, slobbery words of love, declarations of undying love, promises of never-ending romance………meh. I suppose that stems from watching my father – married five times and engaged to two different women at the time of his death – doing the romantic number to all his wives and girlfriends on Valentine’s Day. We’re talking roses, jewelry, cards, the works, and yet, he was never faithful to any of them. I suppose that has made me somewhat cautious of the grand romantic gesture.

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Regardless, Love in the Time of Cholera has become one of my absolute favorite love stories in the world. It’s romantic, yes, but it is also unconventional, sexually explicit, funny, dark, painful, and beautiful. The love story at its heart spans 50 years, goes from youthful obsession to accepting love, from being young to growing old and still maintaining that deep, abiding love for another. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall in love when in their teens, but her father refuses to allow her to marry him. She instead marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino, older, wealthier, and somewhat of a local hero. Florentino maintains his love and adoration of Fermina for 50 years, going through affair after affair after affair, numerous sexual exploits, varying relationships – 622, to be exact – yet in his heart and soul, he is faithful to his Fermina because he only loves her. When Dr. Urbino dies in the first chapter, after their 50+ years of marriage, Fermina sees Florentino at the funeral where he declares his perpetual love for her, and sets out to woo her again. Thus begins the story.

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Florentino’s love for Fermina is compared to the cholera – feverish, never-ending, destructive, devastating. Those of us who have had the fortune and misfortune to have a love so encompassing, enveloping and overwhelming can agree – love is passionate, maddening, destructive, and ultimately, redeeming.

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The other reason why I love this book so much is because the daily, grinding reality of marriage is so well described. Dr. Urbino doesn’t truly love Fermina, though he is a good husband in many ways. But the daily rituals of cooking, eating, lovemaking, washing clothes, going to work, knowing the other person so well, understanding their love of cafe con leche, their hatred of a certain song, their taste in jewelry, the way they get dressed or comb their hair…………it is in these elements that that connection is created.

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In this story, one of Fermina’s most amusing quirks is her hatred for eggplant. She despises this vegetable, and the book is littered with references to her disgust, at one point comparing it to purple poison. And one of the most touching scenes is when she initially accepts Florentino’s youthful marriage proposal with a note stating:

Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.

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And speaking of my father, one of the things he loved to do was cook, and he was quite an excellent one. His specialty was eggplant Parmigiana, which I thought was highly appropriate in this context. This is the method that worked for me, based on the marvelous Anna del Conte’s recipe in Gastronomy of Italy, one of my absolute favorite cookbooks.

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INGREDIENTS
2 large eggs
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
1 cup freshly grated Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
2 eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch slices, salted for an hour then rinsed
2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup fresh basil
1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 16-oz container ricotta cheese
1 large egg, beaten
1 jar homemade marinara sauce (I got mine from Tully’s Italian Deli)
2 cups mixed grated mozzarella and fontina cheeses

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 375F. Combine 2 eggs and 1 tablespoon water in a shallow dish. Combine panko and 1/4 cup Parmeggiano-Reggiano in a second shallow dish.

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Dip eggplant slices first in the egg mixture, then in the panko mixture, and shake off the excess.

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Heat canola or peanut oil in a large skillet, and brown the eggplant slices, turning once to brown both sides. Drain on paper towels.

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Make the filling. Combine the chopped basil, the crushed red pepper, the garlic, the ricotta cheese, the egg, and the heated-through marinara sauce. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper as needed.

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Spoon about a half-cup of the marinara sauce mixture in the bottom of a glass Pyrex baking dish, and put a layer of eggplant slices onto the red sauce.

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Do one more layer, finish with the last of the marinara sauce mixture, cover with tinfoil and bake another 30 minutes. Remove foil and top with mozzarella and fontina. Bake another 15 minutes until the cheese is golden and melted.

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Serve alone or with pasta. I chose spinach noodles because I love the color and the taste.

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Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses by Isabel Allende

This book was one of the most wonderful and sensual I’ve had the pleasure of reading in ages. Isabel Allende is a an amazingly erotic writer, bringing to life the twin joys of food and sex……something I’ve blogged about previously. If you truly think about it, these two activities are mirrors of each other in so many ways. We must all eat to live, and we must procreate to continue life.

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But I speak of not procreation or eating to survive, but rather, the sheer joy that is inherent in both activities. The sensation of an oyster sliding down your throat, the salty crunch of roasted almonds in your mouth, the grape flavor of wine on your tongue………all are just as pleasurable as the taste of your lover’s lips and tongue, the feel of his strong hands on your body, and the sensation of being made love to.

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Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses is an ode to the joys of lovemaking and the joys of eating. Coupled with various recipes designed to be aphrodisiacal, the beauty of kissing and touching and making love, and how these sensations are heightened by specific foods and drinks, are chronicled in dizzying detail. Allende is known for magic realism, and this book retains and spills over with that flavor of magical realism and picturesque description. Probably best read and cooked with your lover, the recipes in this book run from simple – consommes and soups – to more complex meals and desserts.

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Though the entire book is devoted to the connection of food and sexual passion, my favorite passage is in the chapter when Allende describes her ultimate orgy and the food she would serve with it. Sensual reading at its best!

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What would I serve at my orgy? If I had unlimited resources, I would offer cold fish, salads, sweets, and fruits – especially grapes, which always appear in films about the Roman Empire. And mushrooms, of course, which are as aphrodisiac as oysters. The celebrated Roman poisoner Lucasta knew the popularity of those fungi.

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I love mushrooms and eat them at least once a week, whether sauteed in butter with onions and garlic and added to spinach and chicken, cooked into scrambled eggs or an omelette, or sliced raw into a lunchtime salad. And when I came across Allende’s recipe for Festive Mushrooms at the back of this wonderful book, I was inspired to recreate them, with a couple of minor changes.

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INGREDIENTS
1 dozen mushrooms
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, finely minced
2 tablespoons duck liver patê flavored with truffles
Juice and zest of 1/2 a lemon
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Wash the mushrooms and cut off the stems, but keep the stems. Pat dry.

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In a food chopper, finely chop the mushroom stems and the shallots.

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Melt the butter in a skillet. Lightly saute the stems and shallots for up to 10 minutes. Add the lemon juice and cook another 5 minutes. Let cool.

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Heat the oven to 375F, and while it heats, mix together the finely chopped stems and shallots with the patê, the heavy cream, and the lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

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Place the mushroom caps on a flat baking tray. With a small spoon, fill each one with the mixture.

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Bake for 30 minutes, or until they become golden on the top.

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They can actually be eaten straight out of the oven, at room temperature, or even chilled. Hot or cold, they are always delicious…………kind of like love.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

One of the reasons I started this blog, beyond the joy of combining my loves of reading and cooking, was also my desire to travel, whether physically or through the pages of books. I wanted to challenge myself as well, to cook food that was outside my comfort zone.

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I’ve always wanted to gain a better understanding of both the history of China and its cuisine, however, and when one day I discovered this book The Ghost Bride, in the bargain bin at Bookworks, my favorite independent bookstore, and having no new books to read for a whole three days (a horror, let me tell you), I bought it, and proceeded to devour it in one sitting.

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It’s a very unexpected book. The premise, a young lady named Li Lan of a once wealthy but now impoverished family in colonial Malacca, is asked by her father to become a “ghost bride” to a young man who has recently died. A ghost bride is a young lady who marries a man who has died, usually who was young and had never been married before death. The idea is that the spirit will be placated by being given a bride and will not haunt his family after death. Li Lan initially balks at the idea (as we all probably would), but then is invited to the home of the dead Lim Tian Ching, whose mother had the idea of marrying his spirit to the living Li Lan. That’s when things start getting interesting.

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I consider this book to be educational as well as entertaining. I learned about Malacca and the Chinese population who lived there among numerous other ethnic and religious groups, a fascinating history of the Chinese culture and their diverse spiritual belief system, which also strongly influences their belief in the afterlife. Ghosts and spirits abound in this book, demons and the shades of people who have not passed yet into The Great Beyond, whether it be heaven or hell. The shadow world resembles the government of the time, structured, bureaucratic, with hierarchies of spirits and ghosts who build opulent houses and have their own caste system, just as the living do. Li Lan is unexpectedly cast into this shadow world when she tries to escape the spiritual advances of Lim Tian Ching, and finds herself on the adventure of a lifetime.

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Speaking of food, in the spirit world of Malacca, spirits cannot eat until the living offer them food and a prayer in the living world. Li Lan is starving there, until her family’s cook, Wong, who has been able to see spirits since he was a child, takes pity on her and dedicates his bowl of laksa to her. Laksa, this delicious sounding dish, is a type of soup that has elements of curry, but is loaded with lots of other goodies so it makes a full and easy street food dish. So what the hell – pardon the pun – I made the laksa and some pineapple cupcakes. Pineapple tarts are mentioned as a nyonya – a dessert – but being unable to find several of the key ingredients for making Malaysian-style tarts, I made cupcakes instead, using the recipe from Baked By An Introvert, being a glutton for punishment by cooking and baking in this muggy summer heat. Oh well. Keeps me out of trouble.

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“Can I have noodles?” Old Wong looked indignant. “Don’t you know that they never wash the bowl and chopsticks but simply pass them along to the next customer? I can make you far better noodles than that.” “But I can’t go home right now.” “You want to get sick?” I couldn’t help smiling at the absurdity of this. “You don’t know……no noodles for you. Further on there’s a laksa stall. We’ll go there, not this kind of dirty place.”

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this terrific recipe from Feasting at Home, another excellent food blog. Along with tofu (which I loathe and despise), something called fish balls are traditionally added to the laksa, and as entertaining as the thought was to tell my friends that yes, the balls of a fish were part of this week’s blog, I decided against it. I’m nice like that.

INGREDIENTS
2 packets of laksa paste (available in any Asian market or online)
3 tablespoons of grapeseed oil
Chicken bouillon cube
2 cups of chicken broth
1 14-oz. can of coconut milk
4 chicken thighs, cubed

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12-15 raw, peeled and deveined shrimp
1 lb rice noodles
2 cups fresh bean sprouts

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1 large lime, cut into quarters
Handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Fried shallots (also available in any Asian market or online)
1 hard-boiled egg, cut lengthwise in half

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METHOD
Heat the laksa paste, the oil and the bouillon cube until the paste begins to soften. You’ll smell the chilies and the shrimp in the paste. Divine!

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Add the chicken broth and the coconut milk and bring to a gentle simmer. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes, to allow the flavors to combine.

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Add the cubed chicken thighs and cook for another 15-20 minutes, to ensure they are fully cooked through.

In another pot, bring lightly salted water to a boil. Add the rice noodles and allow to cook for 30 seconds or so. They won’t take long at all. Drain and set aside.

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After 20 minutes of the chicken simmering, add a squeeze of lime juice to the laksa broth. Add the shrimp and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the shrimp are nice and pink. Don’t overcook, because the shrimp will be rubbery. Gross.

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Ladle the broth and meat into bowls, add the rice noodles, and garnish each bowl with the cilantro, a handful of the bean sprouts, another squeeze of lime, the fried shallots, and half the hard boiled egg.

You can eat this in the traditional manner, slurping up noodles with chopsticks if you can manage them, and spooning up the broth. You see I have my chopsticks for the terminally incompetent here.

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Delicious! It’s spicy, tart from the limes, pungent from the cilantro, and tastes of the sea with the laksa paste. So good, healthy and, even though it’s hot outside, it’s very refreshing to eat. This one’s a keeper.

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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.

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon (Outlander Series)

So I won’t bore you with my gushing adoration for the books of Diana Gabaldon. If you’re a book lover, a lover of history, a lover of epic love stories, a lover of time travel, or if you watch STARZ, you’ve probably heard of the Outlander series by this marvelous writer, and hopefully, you also think it’s the shizzle. I know I do.

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For those few people who might not have heard of either the books or the TV series, the premise is simple: a woman travels through time, meets the love of her life 200 years in the past, and forever alters her past, present, and future. It’s a much more detailed, ornate and intricate story, however, involving British, French and American history, the battle for Scottish independence and the devastation of the Battle of Culloden Moor, a whiff of the supernatural, a hint of sci-fi, and probably one of the most beautiful, complex and mature love stories ever written about in literature. Gabaldon clearly understands the convoluted pathways of the human heart, and expresses them in all their lovely, ugly glory in the 8-book series. The TV series, though great, falls short in details, and was extremely dark and at times, unbearable to watch. But I still watched the Season 2 premier!

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Mentions of food and drink are quite plentiful throughout the entire book series, with such wonders as a rabbit-and-pigeon pie, soused pig’s face, wild turkey with chestnuts and truffles, sangria drunk with a pot-smoking priest, a chocolate cake with walnuts (shell bits and all) for your biting pleasure, something dreadful-sounding called parritch, which is some sort of nasty porridge eaten in Scotland, and one of my favorite food scenes in any book, when Louis XV invites Jamie and Claire to an ornate luncheon at Versailles Palace and a baroque display of stuffed baby quails, roasted in their original shape, bones and all, are presented to the king, a sort of kingly four-and-twenty-blackbirds-baked-into-a-pie. Claire watches in bemused fascination as the king pops one of the little blackened birds into his mouth, chews, and swallows. She then excuses herself to vomit profusely in the gardens. Go, quail!

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I’ve started re-reading the whole series from the beginning, as much to prepare myself for the second season of TV series, as to lose myself again in this marvelous world. Reading this series is a sheer, sensual pleasure of the mind and the heart. I’m on the third book, Voyager, and in honor of the second series premier tonight, I decided to recreate the peppery, creamy oyster stew Jamie and Claire share after their first night together in a very long time, where we find Claire remembering some very seductive and erotic moments from the night before.

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My breath coming a little short, I bent my head to my oyster stew. Jamie appeared not to have noticed; he added a large pat of butter to his bowl, shaking his head as he did so. “Sawney’s what they say in the Highlands,” he informed me. ‘And in the Isles, too. Sandy’s more what ye’d hear in the Lowlands – or from an ignorant Sassenach.” He lifted one eyebrow at me, smiling, and raised a spoonful of the rich, fragrant stew to his mouth.

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This is the method that worked for me, tweaked from Buddy Sizemore’s 5-star recipe on Allrecipes.com, with of course, some added touches of my own.

INGREDIENTS

3 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of cayenne pepper
15-20 oysters, shucked, and the liquid they come in. You can also use canned if that’s all you can find, but save the oyster liquid either way.
2 ribs celery, finely diced

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2 shallots, finely diced or minced
4 bay leaves, fresh if possible but dried is also fine
1 cup half-and-half cream or whole milk
1/2 cup of Pernod liqueur (my touch as I had a bottle from a previous blog post)
2 little red potatoes, peeled and cubed into smallish pieces

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1 cup of chicken stock or fish stock if you have it
Chicken stock cube

METHOD

Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and saute the celery, shallot and garlic along with the cayenne, salt and pepper. When they have softened and are somewhat translucent, add the Pernod, the chicken stock, the chicken stock cube, and the fresh bay leaves.

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Then add the diced potato and cook until the potato chunks are very soft and easy to mash with a wooden spoon. Between 20-30 minutes cooking time should do it. When the potatoes are soft, mash them against the side of the pot so that they thicken the broth. Add the oyster liquid and the half-and-half, and taste. I warn you, the scent of the broth is heady, with the oyster liquor mingling with the butter and the anise perfume of the Pernod. It’s amazing how good it smells. Even if you’re not a fan of licorice, please try adding the Pernod if you have it. It completely transforms the stew.

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Stir together again and allow to gently simmer for 10 minutes, so the flavors mingle and combine. Lower the heat and add the oysters.

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You’re looking for the edges of the oysters to curl up, which is when they’re cooked, so approximately 5 minutes. Keep an eye on it and continue stirring, so the cream doesn’t curdle and the oysters don’t overcook.

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I have to say that this is one of the best things I’ve made yet. It’s rich, unctuous, and tastes so fresh and luscious. You may want to taste for any last-minute seasoning, though I found it didn’t need anything. It was delish! Serve in bowls with oyster crackers or some good, crusty bread and a glass of wine, or if you’re truly into Scots mode, a large dram of whisky. Slainte!

“I want him.” I had not said that to Jamie at our marriage; I had not wanted him, then. But I had said it since, three times; in two moments of choice at Craigh na Dun, and once again at Lallybroch. “I want him.” I wanted him still, and nothing whatever could stand between us.

La Cucina by Lily Prior

20160110_150728_resized(NOTE: Please do not repost this content, recipe or associated photos without my permission.)

I’m not much for bodice rippers. I find them overly dramatic, unrealistic, and the writing is often just bad. But enough about 50 Shades of Grey.

That being said, I just finished Lily Prior’s La Cucina – A Novel Of Rapture, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Essentially, it’s a book about food and sex. There is some murder thrown in for good measure, a dramatic Sicilian mother, conjoined twins, a villa by the sea, a parrot, a little black pug(!), and of course, food. And sex. And a library.

You read that right. Books. Food. Sex. The (Un)Holy Trinity, at least in my world.

It’s interesting, the connections between sex and food that are found in literature, and indeed, in life. After all, food nourishes us, and sex…….well, none of us would be here without it. Both are ways in which we often feel most connected to the physical – eating a wonderful meal or being with a wonderful lover. Both have the potential to be so comforting in the face of strife and trouble, as well as being marvelous celebrations of simply being alive.

This novel takes that connection between food and sex and runs with it in such a delightful way. The main character, Rosa, finds solace as a librarian after a tragedy and ends up finding love again, but her main passion, her vocation, her reason for being, is cooking.

See that there link between books and food? Ring a bell?  Anyway, I digress.

The book is filled with so many wonderful food dishes and references that I almost can’t choose which is my favorite. One of the best is when Rosa meets the man who will ultimately become her lover and cannot sleep for thinking about him. I mean, who hasn’t tossed and turned thinking about someone we have desired or loved who turned our heads and hearts inside out…….not to mention our stomachs? In her insomnia, she prepares something delectable-sounding called formaggio all’ Argentiera, which is caciocavallo cheese cooked slowly to melt and mixed with red wine vinegar, garlic and oregano, then piled onto rustic bread and eaten with great delight. Doesn’t that sound absolutely heavenly? I couldn’t find caciocavallo locally, but I may return to this recipe and book if ever I do. Be warned.

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Cooking up some Italian!

By far, my favorite scene in the book is when her lover invites her to his (of course!) villa overlooking the sea and cooks her the most sensual and amazing meal, and then proceeds to eat it off her body. Holy Mother of God! He starts with oysters, placing them at strategic areas on her body and eating them off. He tilts her wineglass so that wine pours into her mouth and throat, then kisses her.

Did I mention this book verges on pornographic? But in a good way.

He finishes by putting spaghetti and his own homemade tomato ragú sauce over her and eating it off, strand by luscious strand.  “He had produced a marvelous ragú with meat, tomatoes, and lots of garlic. As I watched, he mixed in the sauce with the spaghetti. After making sure it wasn’t too hot, he ladled it onto my body……..With his hands, he fed the spaghetti to me, trailing its tendrils between my parted lips. It was divine. Mmmmmmm. A truly wonderful sauce: lots of garlic, tender chunks of meat.” (pp. 173-174).

I defy you to not be enticed by that description, both of passion and of food. As such, I was inspired to try and recreate a tomato ragú that would entice a lover to pour it all over me and eat it off. I’ll report back.

This is the cooking method that worked for me.
Continue reading “La Cucina by Lily Prior”