A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I realize I am late to the party with this book, but seriously, I only “discovered” A Discovery of Witches, and forgive my cheesy-ass pun, when the Sundance Channel started airing the previews for the TV series based on the book trilogy. The series looked so well-made that I had to read the book and find out what all the hype was about.

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I’ll be honest and say off the top that no one does witches and vampires better than Anne Rice. They simply don’t. The woman has taken lush, lyrical, sometimes purple prose to new heights of sensuality when describing the taste of blood, the sensation of magic affecting the world around us, the scent of skin and flesh, the feeling of luxury in the smallest of details. So I went in fully not expecting anything similar to hers, but still hoping for a good read. And I wasn’t disappointed, though it was a different experience than what I’d expected.

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Matthew Clairmont is a vampire and Diana Bishop is a witch, in this fascinating universe of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They are both scholars in Oxford, Matthew a geneticist and medical doctor, and Diana a PhD-carrying professor of ancient alchemical texts. They meet in a library when Diana, whose witch talents have been “bound” since childhood, inadvertently unearths the magical tome Ashmole 782, an ancient book of magic that purportedly gives the secrets of how vampires, witches and daemons came into being and how any of these magical races might destroy the other and rule the world.

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Slightly melodramatic, yes. Of course, they have an instant attraction to one another, and of course they end up falling in love. The trajectory of their romance isn’t what you’d expect, though, since vampires, witches and daemons are forbidden from “fraternizing,” and they don’t consummate their love, at least not in this book. There are two more after this book, so hopefully they get some action in one of those. 😉

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Harkness writes with an unusual mix of historical reverence and modern sensibility, having her characters be these magical creatures with godlike powers, eternal life, and incredible talents…….and they do yoga. No, seriously. I about died laughing in the beginning of the book when Matthew courts Diana by taking her to a yoga class. Nothing against yoga here, but just the thought of a centuries-old blood drinker twisting himself into a downward-facing dog position gave me the giggles. Anyway, I digress.

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I do have to say that I didn’t much like the character of Matthew, quite honestly. I get that vampires, in this literary universe, are protective of those they love, and at heart, are predators so they consider the chase and the hunt an elemental part of any interaction and relationship. That, combined with being centuries old and being essentially a bossy, old-fashioned man who thinks he knows everything, make him a jerk. Pardon my crudeness, but yes, Matthew Clairmont is sort of a dick. He grew on me eventually, but I still think he’s an arrogant ass at times.

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There are some superb food references in this book, for being in the culinary repertoire of an ancient vampire who doesn’t even ingest food, at least, not much food. Matthew invites Diana to dinner at his elegant home when they are starting to fall in love, though ostensibly he is only inviting her to protect her from the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also sensed that the magical Ashmole has been unearthed and want to get their claws on it. But we all know Matthew has more on his mind than a book.

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The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat……..”it’s an old recipe from Normandy,” he said. “Do you like it?” “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Did you make it?”

I know the book specifies that Matthew makes Diana an old French-style veal stew with apples, but I can’t really stomach veal these days, so in honor of the fact of Matthew’s essential Frenchness, I opted instead for a beef stew with Dijon mustard and brandy. Can you get more Gallic than Dijon and brandy? 🙂

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup brandy
4 cups beef stock, preferably unsalted as the Dijon has quite a lot of salt
1/2 cup stoneground mustard
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots, with a sprinkle of sea salt over them. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Add the butter to the oil in the pan.

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Add the flour, salt and pepper to a large plastic bag, then put in the beef cubes to coat. Shake off excess flour with tongs, and place half the cubes in the pan.

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Cook over medium-high heat until well browned and crusty on all sides, then put into the bowl with the shallots. Repeat with the remaining beef cubes.

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Add the brandy to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose.

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Pour in the beef stock, the Dijon mustard and the stoneground mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender.

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The last 15 minutes of cook time, add the mushrooms and the red wine to the bubbling, fragrant stew. Simmer another 5 minutes, taste for seasoning, and serve with butter noodles and red wine to drink.

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So good and richly flavored! The mustard and brandy really complement one another, and perfectly tenderize the beef. No doubt a vampire would approve. I know we loved it so much we ate it all up before I could take the requisite “food and book” photo, so yet another shot of the luscious stew will have to suffice.

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The Unburied by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser is my favorite author after Umberto Eco, writing as he does in the most lucid, erudite, intellectual and bawdy style that sucks you into the vivid, dirty, and virulent world of Victorian, post-Industrial England. His settings are the traditional British country house or vicarage, manor or townhouse, and his Dickensian-named characters show off the best and worst qualities of humanity. For all their quiet, tea-drinking mannerisms and genteel ways of speaking, these characters are among the most inept, foolish, clueless, stupid, venal and cruelly malign in modern literature.

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In Palliser’s twist on the traditional Christmas ghost story, The Unburied, Dr. Edward Courtine comes to the small British town of Thurchester to see his old school “friend” Austin Fickling for Christmas, and to see the town’s historic church and related records. Of course, being a church, there is a ghost. And a historical mystery. And then a murder, which happens moments after Edward and Austin visit the victim. How it all turns and twists together creates a memorable murder mystery/ghost story/ Christmas tale that will make you view the holiday season in a less-than-thrilled light.

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It is very much written in an academia tone, but it moves at the pace of a whirlwind, so anyone who enjoys British literature, the books of Charles Dickens, or even history, will enjoy this book. The sense of menace creeps up on you very subtly, and there are occasions when you – ok, when I – found myself snapping at Edward’s stupidity. “Hello, the answer is RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!!!!” I caught myself shouting before I pulled it together and reminded myself it’s just a book.

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In an early scene, Edward dines with Austin, with whom he is staying, in a horrible, freezing cold old house that is where the mystery kicks off. Austin is acting quite passively-aggressively nasty to Edward as he prepares their meal of chops and onions……not well, I would add.

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“After your long journey,” he went on, “I thought you’d like to stay in tonight, and I’ll cook our supper.”  “As you did in the old days,” I exclaimed. “Do you not recall? When we lodged at Sidney Street, we used to take turns to grill chops?”…………. Austin nodded. “Do you remember your ‘chops St. Lawrence’ as you called them? Burnt to a crisp like the poor saint.”

Pork chops with caramelized onions in a mustard-cream sauce seemed just the ticket on this chilly night, plus they are simple to make and best of all, delicious. This is the method that worked for me, based on my own recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
4 pork chops, bone out, 1/2 inch thick each
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup grain Dijon mustard
4 red onions, sliced into rings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD

Heat the oven to 400F.

Start with the onions. Put the olive oil and butter into a nonstick skillet and melt. Add the onions, and stir so all is glossy and covered. Sprinkle over the sugar, then let the onions cook slowly and brown underneath, stirring occasionally. This will probably take you a good 45 minutes, if not longer.

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At the 30-minute mark, pour in the red wine. Continue stirring and cooking.

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At the end of the cooking, you will have a pile of deliciously warm, brown-tinted caramelized onions that are sweet and have a marvelous soft texture.

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In the same pan heated to medium-high, add the pork chops, and season with salt and pepper. Sear each side for 5 minutes, then put the cast-iron pan with the chops into the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, let the chops rest, and put the pan back on the stove over a medium burner.

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Add the grain Dijon mustard and stir around. Then pour in the heavy cream and let it thicken and cook. Don’t let it curdle.

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To be quintessentially British, serve the sizzling hot chops with the Dijon-cream sauce poured over, the onions piled glossily on one side, and some classic mushy peas on the other. Sooooooo good and easy, too!

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Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Crystal King

I’m back, and I greatly appreciate everyone’s patience and kind comments asking when I would get my ass back into the blogging world. Well, yesterday was the day. I’m officially moved into my gorgeous new house, which has the most beautiful kitchen, so Food in Books has returned.

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Having lived in controlled chaos surrounded by boxes of packed-up books and kitchenware over the past month was a challenge, and I kept myself sane by picturing the first literary meal I would cook in my new kitchen. While at the library last week I discovered Feast of Sorrow: A Novel of Ancient Rome and of course, with a title like that, I had to read it.

It is the fictionalized story of Apicius, the earliest-known cookbook author. Apicius lived during the reign of Caesar Augustus and then Tiberius Caesar, and is known for writing what is known as De re coquinaria, the earliest collection of recipes known.  The historical detail is amazing, and the few known bits of information about the actual life of Apicius are woven seamlessly into the novel. Actual Roman condiments such as liquamen – a type of fish sauce – and silphium – a now-extinct type of fennel, and so many others – are demonstrated in the book recipes, which was very cool. Foodie nerd porn literature!

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The final feast cooked by Apicius’s cook, a free slave named Thracius, is a magnificent masterpiece of all known cuisines of ancient Rome. There are peacocks roasted and re-dressed in their own feathers, flamingo steaks, stuffed and fried baby birds; and roasted asparagus in mustard sauce. As tempting as it was to try and go all-out Roman and recreate the feast, I didn’t. Flamingos aren’t in season, you realize.

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Asparagus in mustard sauce seemed doable, especially in light of the fact that being in modern times, I didn’t have to hand-grind mustard seeds into a paste and season to create the condiment. I cooked the asparagus with roasted garlic lemon chicken, which went deliciously well with the tangy, roasted asparagus dish. The ancient Romans would be pleased, I think.

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb fresh asparagus
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons organic mayonnaise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F. Snap off the woody ends of the asparagus and rinse well.

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Roast for up to 30 minutes, until they get those nice brown, charred bits.

In a large measuring cup, mix together the red wine vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. This is very much to taste, so adjust to your liking.

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Drizzle the sauce over the roasted asparagus, serve with the chicken, and wolf down with the greed of an ancient Roman senator.

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And last but not least, a huge thanks and shout-out to Jen at http://www.readrantrockandroll.com for nominating me for another blog award. Jen, who also goes by the very cool moniker of Mischenko (sounds like a sexy Russian spy, doesn’t it?) writes about music, movies, books, gaming and food, in addition to modern culture, so I highly recommend her blog. https://readrantrockandroll.com/2017/07/30/award-real-neat-blog-award-1-2/

 

Dune by Frank Herbert

Thanks to JP for the photography.

I remember discovering the planet Arrakis when I was about 11 years old and nosily poking around my uncle Greg’s apartment. He lived in a guest apartment behind my grandparent’s house and had a taste for the music of The Police and sci-fi fiction, both of which he passed along to me. I saw Dune on his sofa and the cover just grabbed me immediately – those huge spice worms! So, of course, I had to sneak away with it and read it.

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Admittedly, it was somewhat over my head but the great thing about reading something new at that age is that you’re still open to new concepts and ideas and so suspension of disbelief is much stronger. I fell in love with Paul Atreides AND Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, and never had any trouble believing in that otherworldly planet of sand where the worms excrete the spice of life and the sand inhabitants have blue-upon-blue eyes.

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If you haven’t read this book, or seen the DeLaurentiis film, the basic premise is thus: Set hundreds and hundreds of years in the future, there are two warring empire families who are vying for control of the Planet Arrakis. The House Atreides and the House Harkonnen battle it out for the Planet, which is the only known place in their universe where they can mine the spice “melange,” which can extend life, grant extrasensory powers, and even allow people to travel through time. Paul Atreides is the hero of the book, and of course, every hero must have an antagonist. In this case, Feyd-Rautha, the nephew of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, becomes Paul’s enemy as their families fight to control the spice, Arrakis, and indeed, the universe itself.

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It was interesting for me to reread this book as an adult, because I actually found myself not liking Paul Atreides very much, especially later in the book when he goes to war against the Baron and becomes fully the Kwisatz Haderach. I suppose when someone gains that level of power, it’s difficult not to allow it to change you, though. Another interesting tidbit that I don’t think I paid attention to was the subtext of Duncan Idaho’s secret love for Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica.

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My dad loved this book, too, and I remember he and my uncle Greg having long, intense conversations about it when I was little. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized they were analyzing a book, not world politics. It just always seemed so very important, like they were debating the fate of the world or something. Not that this book isn’t marvelous and very detailed, but still. Kind of funny to realize what sci-fi nerds they both really were. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from tree, though. Ahem…..

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Anyway, when rereading this book, I came across this passage, when Lady Jessica and Duke Leto Atreides (Paul’s father) are entertaining a group of bankers from the Empire, serving them dinner but also trying to find out if they are secretly supporting House Harkonnen. Lady Jessica calls for a most unusual dish.

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Jessica signaled for another course of food and drink. Servants appeared with langues de lapins de garenne – red wine and a sauce of mushroom-yeast on the side………..”Very important,” he agreed. “What is this dish? It’s delicious.” “Tongues of wild rabbit in a special sauce,” she said. “A very old recipe.”

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I hadn’t had rabbit in years, and though I couldn’t stomach the thought of eating rabbit tongues, rabbit braised in red wine and mustard, with mushrooms, sounded divine. So that’s what I made, using a combination of rabbit methods from Simply Recipes, The New York Times, and The Two Fat Ladies. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
2 lbs organic rabbit pieces, skinned and bone-in
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
4 pieces of bacon, cut into strips
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 and 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons grain Dijon mustard
2 cups red wine
1 cup heavy cream
Fresh parsley

METHOD
Salt and pepper the rabbit pieces, and brown them in the butter and olive oil. Set aside.

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In the pan juices, add the bacon strips and cook until brown. Yum bacon!

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Remove the bacon, and add the onion, the mushrooms, and the thyme; and cook for about 10-15 minutes. The smell alone will transport you!

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Add the cooked mushrooms and onions to the plate with the bacon, and splash in some red wine to deglaze the cooking pan. Scrape up the lovely brown bits, as they add so much flavor to the dish.

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Whisk together the rest of the red wine with the mustard and the flour, creating a kind of thin slurry. Place the browned rabbit pieces into the pan, and pour over the red wine-mustard sauce.

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Add in the bacon, onions and mushrooms, and gently mix everything around so that the sauce covers everything.

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Cover and simmer on very low heat for up to an hour. After an hour, remove the lid, and remove the rabbit pieces to a plate. Turn up the heat, and let the winy sauce boil hard for about 10 minutes, to thicken.

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While the sauce is reducing, boil some egg noodles in salted water, until al dente, maybe 6 minutes at the most.

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Add the cream to the reduced sauce, stirring so that everything melds harmoniously. Don’t let it curdle.

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Plate the rabbits atop the egg noodles. Ladle over the beautiful, creamy sauce. Garnish with parsley.

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Soooooo good, and just different enough to make a Sunday lunch feel a bit more special. Do try this if you find some good-quality rabbit, or if you’re not a bunny boiler, it’s also delicious with boneless, skinless chicken thighs!