Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

I was first given the book Winter’s Tale by a woman who worked with me in a law firm,  several years ago. She was an odd woman, claiming to be psychic and in touch with – in her own words – “the universal forces.”

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She was a practicing Wiccan, though it turns out she was in love with my then-boss and was using her Wiccan powers to try to destroy his marriage so she could have him. I digress slightly, but it was she who introduced me to this wonderful and mystical novel that encompasses magical realism, fantasy, history, metaphysics, and time travel, so I associate her with this novel. I suppose we all have that strange individual who has crossed our paths and made an unusual impression, whether good or bad.

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I love magical realism in books, though in my own humble opinion the Latin American writers do it best. Cases in point: Rudolfo Anaya, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, and pretty much every book written by the late, great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom I blogged about twice previously. But Mark Helprin brings snowy, turn-of-the-century New York City in a slightly alternate universe, into this magically realistic universe so beautifully. The endless clashes of good and evil, love and hate, life and death, and the eternity beyond it all, are described in such a way that you are transported there.

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The love story between Peter Lake, an Irish immigrant who is later granted supernatural powers, and Beverly Penn, the heiress dying of consumption, is stronger than death, stronger than time, and it’s that love story that colors the entire book.

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When I recently finished rereading this book, I was filled with joy and sadness; that such a world exists and that the book containing it had to come to an end. One of the lines that touched my heart and hit me so strongly in the heart was this one:  “Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is shatter time and bring back the dead.” For anyone who has ever loved and lost, whether it be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a grandparent, or a lover, this line is particularly poignant. We all want to shatter time and bring these people back…….whether they have actually passed on from this world or whether it is the love between us that died.

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Peter Lake is on the run from the unusual creature Pearly Soames – devil? demon? – with whom he has previously associated and who now wants to kill him. A magical white horse called Athansor has appeared to whisk him to safety, which he finds in a hidden garret in Grand Central Station. He is able to safely stable the horse, rest, and being hungry from his recent adventures, proceeds to cook himself a delicious meal of seafood stew.

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With his strength renewed, he realized that he was ravenously hungry, and proceeded to cook an excellent bouillabaisse culled from cans of varied fish, tomatoes, wine, oil and an enormous bottle of Saratoga spring water.

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I have yet to meet a combination of fish and tomatoes I don’t love. Bouillabaisse was something I’d yet to try, though, so today, a cold, windy day heralding the beginning of winter, seemed the appropriate time to recreate Peter Lake’s homemade meal.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on methods from Emeril Lagasse and the marvelous The Ultimate Book of Fish & Shellfish by Kate Whiteman, which has a place of honor among my cookbooks. There are many ideas about what constitutes proper bouillabaisse, but the overall consensus is that you can essentially use whichever fish and shellfish you’d like, and make the classic rouille to garnish the bread eaten with this dish.

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INGREDIENTS
1 small roasted red pepper, peeled and deseeded
2 chunks of baguette, torn into pieces
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

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1 egg yolk
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
7 cloves of garlic, minced (4 for the bouillabaisse, 3 for the rouille)
4 cups fish stock
1/2 cup Pernod
1/2 cup clam juice
2 leeks, white part only, washed and cut into rings
Handful of chopped parsley
1 fennel bulb

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Zest and juice of one orange
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, whole
Pinch of saffron threads

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4 bay leaves
8 ripe beefsteak or Campari tomatoes
4 small red potatoes, cubed
1 lb frozen salmon, cut into large chunks
1 lb. frozen cod, cut into large chunks
2 cups frozen shrimp, deveined and peeled but with tails attached
2 cups frozen clams in their shells
Remainder of the baguette, cut into thick slices

METHOD
For the rouille:
Combine the torn-up 2 baguette pieces, the roasted red pepper, 3 of the peeled garlic cloves, the Dijon mustard, the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the salt and pepper in a food processor. Mix until smooth, then slowly add the olive oil.

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Mix again until you have a smooth, thick emulsion. Set aside.

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For the bouillabaisse:
Saute the onion, celery and garlic in a bit of olive oil. Add the bay leaves and peppercorns. Add the leeks and the fennel, and saute for another 5 minutes, or until soft.

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Grate in the orange zest here, and then squeeze in the juice to the broth.

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Add 3 cups of the seafood stock. Stir to mix and simmer another 5 minutes. Then add the diced tomatoes.

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Add the Pernod, the tomato bouillon cube, the saffron, and the remainder of the fish stock. Allow to cook another 10-15 minutes, so the flavors mingle. You’ll be able to smell the saline of the stock and the anise of the liqueur.

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Once your broth has simmered 15 minutes, add a half-cup of clam juice and blend to a thick, smooth consistency with a stick blender. Toss in the parsley.

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Heat the oven broiler at this point. You’ll know why in a moment. Add the potatoes to the broth. Cook another 15 minutes, or until they soften. Add in your fish at this stage, but stagger based on thickness and delicacy. The idea is to have all the fish cooked perfectly. Add the cod and the salmon chunks first and cook for 6 minutes.

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Toss in the clams and enjoy that clatter of shells in the soup pot. Cook another 6 minutes, until the clams open up. Discard any that don’t open, unless you enjoy pain. Add the shrimp and cook until they turn pink.

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While the fish is cooking, toast the baguette slices under the broiler for 1 minute.  Remove, and spread with the rouille sauce.

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In a bowl, place 3 chunks of rouille-smeared bread. Ladle over some of the fish and the heavenly-scented broth. Drizzle over a bit of the rouille sauce.

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This is truly heaven in a bowl for seafood lovers. Rich, delicate and with a mix of green and salty, savory flavors that hit your tongue like a golden kiss. Soooooooooo good, and perfect for a chilly winter’s day.

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In a New York State of Mind

No blog post this week, as I am traveling back from New York City. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to attend an amazing digital publishing and marketing conference, which ties directly into the work I do in my day job, and was really one of the most dynamic and engaging conferences I’ve ever attended. In my free time, I also got to experience most of the most amazing parts of New York, including the food, of which you all know I am a great fan. Here are some pictures of the experiences, sites, and delicious food I got to experience while in the Big Apple. Hope you enjoy.

Above: The famous Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park.

Brasserie Les Halles on Park Avenue, where the late, great and missed Anthony Bourdain got his start as a chef and writer. Part of my foodie pilgrimage.

A gorgeous statue and gown from the Heavenly Bodies Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Another stunning image from the Heavenly Bodies Exhibit.

Arancini with porcini and Fontina and chilled rosé at Eataly. Amazing food and grocery store.

Mott Street in Chinatown.

Vitello tonnato at Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia, one of the most amazing restaurants I’ve ever eaten in.

Some of the art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The entrance to the Heavenly Bodies Exhibit

Lemon pistachio tart, tiramisu and prosecco in Little Italy.

Some of the many olive oils sold at Eataly.

A stained glass window in the medieval collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Vanilla and coffee panna cotta and tiramisu at Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia Restaurant.

Soup dumplings and vinegar sauce in Chinatown.

Times Square. It’s a zoo, but you should see it at least once.

Vitello tagliatelli with porcini and arugula at Lidia Bastianich’s Felidia Restaurant.

The Empire State Building, lit up red on my last night.

The entrance to Little Italy on Mulberry Street.

A panoramic view from atop the Empire State Building.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr

The story of the United States is varied and unique, as any historian will tell you. We have the story of the indigenous Native Americans, the British pilgrims, the ancient Vikings, the Irish, German, Polish, and Scottish immigrants who came in a wave to this country between the mid-1700s and late 1800s, and the the Spanish conquistadores who brought their religion – by force, mostly – to the Southwest Pueblo and Plains Indians, to name just a few of the groups who make up this vast melting pot that is America.

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With these diverse groups came diverse religions, cultural beliefs, histories, folklore, and food. What all of these cultures and people have in common is the fact that, no matter where you come from or what you believe in, there is still the criminal mind among them all.

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Caleb Carr, one of my most favorite historian authors in the world, gave us what I consider his masterpiece in “The Alienist,” which details the story of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler and his band of crime-fighting allies in 1890s New York City, a place of huge waves of immigrants, incredible racism and poverty, and during the tenure of Teddy Roosevelt’s stint as Police Commissioner for that city.

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It’s a murder mystery, a treatise on early scientific methods in policing, fascinating psychological analysis, excellent historical fiction, and an unusual love story all rolled into one. Told from the POV of John Schuyler Moore, a journalist who is recruited by Dr. Kreizler to be part of the team to solve a series of increasingly gruesome child murders, the industrial feel and outlaw mentality of that era in NYC history is vividly brought to life. Moore is a great narrator, detailed yet very amusing at time, and his journey from disbelief to staggering endorsement of Dr. Kreizler’s methods echoes the mentality of most people back in that time and place.

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As much an excellent historical portrait, the clothes, architecture, transportation, and food are also described vividly. One of their favorite restaurants to eat at, and a New York institution, is Delmonico’s. Delmonico’s is still in operation, though it’s gone through many different variations, and of course, there is the famous Delmonico steak. But Delmonico’s provides the crime-fighting team with amazing meals, including one at a very heart-wrenching and sad period in their investigation.

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With unfailing psychological insight, Kreizler had selected for our breakfast the only place in New York where I might have been able to either collect myself or eat anything at all. Alone in the silent main dining room at Del’s, with the light that came through the windows soft enough to allow my shattered nerves to begin to heal, I actually managed to consume several bites of cucumber fillets, Creole eggs…………..\

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Along with Creole Eggs and cucumber fillets, fried potatoes and artichoke hearts are mentioned as part of this poignant breakfast, so that’s what I made. My Creole eggs were based on the great Louisiana chef Emeril Lagasse’s recipe, with my own tweaks for taste. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
1 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes
1 green pepper, deseeded and finely chopped
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 red onion, peeled and finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
6 eggs, room temperature
1 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

METHOD
Saute the green pepper, onion, mushrooms, celery and bay leaves in a bit of olive oil for about 10 minutes.

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Pour in the tomatoes, and simmer together on low heat for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

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Add the chicken bouillon paste and if necessary, salt and pepper. Simmer another 45  minutes, stirring to keep from sticking or burning.

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While the sauce is simmering, start frying your potatoes.

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Heat the oven to 350F. Spread the tomato sauce across the bottom of four ramekins.

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Crack two eggs into each ramekin, so they rest atop the tomatoes. Add a bit more salt and pepper.

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Sprinkle over the breadcrumbs, then the cheese, and bake for 20 minutes, until the eggs set.

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Remove from the oven, and allow to cool. The cheese puffs up like a miniature souffle – very elegant – and gets bubbly and golden brown.

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Serve with fried potatoes, artichoke hearts, and cucumber fillets for a tasty Sunday afternoon treat. I do feel the great Dr. Kreizler would approve!

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The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

Thanks to JP for the photography.

Reading this book and getting to know the main character of Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was both a joy and a sadness. This is a man with a great lust for life, dancing and drinking and eating and womanizing…….and with a talent for making decisions based on instinct and as oftentimes as not, ending up in worse circumstances.

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The trajectory of Cesar’s life is told in this book. He is a musician who comes from Cuba with his younger brother Nestor, both of them determined to make a name for themselves in the musical world of mambo in 1950s New York City. Nestor is a dreamer, sensitive and still in love with Maria back in Cuba, for whom he writes the song that will launch he and his brother into a semblance of success, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” While the title references both brothers, however, the book is truly Cesar’s tale of joy, woe, happiness, pain, and ultimately, calm satisfaction with his life.It really is the story of any man, of Everyman.

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Cesar is bigger than life, with appetites to match. He is the businessman, the driving force of the two brothers, yet – spoiler alert – when Nestor dies, a part of Cesar goes with him……..which all of us who have loved and lost someone can well relate to. There were times, though, when his life went from bad to worse, when his boozing and whoring made him into such a sad pathetic jerk, that I threw the book down in disgust. But I picked it up and continued reading, because his character is so fascinating, so resilient and ultimately, so filled with the joy of life.

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There’s a sense of wonder in this book that conveys Cesar’s mindset so well. You can understand why he continues to make the same mistakes over and over, yet still find something new and precious in his life. He is such a strong, tough, macho man, sensual, able to turn the world a bit on its axis toward him, and yet has those colossal weaknesses that bring him back down to earth.

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One passage in particular stood out to me. It’s just after they have appeared on the I Love Lucy show with Desi Arnaz, who becomes somewhat of a patron to them, and their Irish neighbor Mrs. Shannon comes to congratulate them and to goggle at Cesar, for whom she has a huge crush.

“She followed Cesar down the hallway…..through the kitchen into the dining room: they had a long table still set with platters of bacalao – codfish cooked with garlic – black beans, rice, a huge salad, pork chops and steaks from the plant, and a big bowl of yuca.”

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Yuca, a quintessential Cuban food, is also one of the simplest and tastiest things to cook. It’s a root vegetable, kind of like a potato or turnip but with more flavor. I cooked them still frozen, in chicken broth mixed with lemon juice and a chicken broth cube, about 30 minutes, to thaw, then added some olive oil and simmered on low another half hour to cook through. They do have a woody center that’s inedible so take that out before you eat. The pan juices, reduced, make a lovely sauce. Add salt if needed. The Cuban-style black beans were easy – I cheated and used canned black beans, and mixed them with gently sauteed onion, garlic, green pepper, salt and cider vinegar, mashing them to thicken.

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However, it was the bacalao that was the star of the show, based on this great recipe from La Cocina de Nathan. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb salt-cured bacalao

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2 eggs
2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking soda
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
6-7 cloves of garlic, either mashed into a paste or as finely grated as possible

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1.5 cups of water
Freshly ground black pepper

METHOD
Soak your bacalao overnight, changing the water every 2-3 hours. This is to drain the salt and also reconstitute the fish, kind of like what you do with dried porcini. I started mine on Saturday morning and did the final rinse and drain Sunday morning. Refrigerate the rinsed, drained and desalted cod until ready to use.

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Let bacalao come to room temperature. Peel the fish meat off the skin, taking out all the bones and scales. Flake with your hands, though initially you may need to use a sharp knife until the meat begins to break down.

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In a separate bowl, mix the flour and the baking soda together and whisk to evenly combine. Add the eggs to the flour and baking soda and whisk again. It will be a fairly crumbly mix, which is what you want at this point.

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Start gradually incorporating the water, until you have a thick, batterlike consistency. Like this. Add the chopped parsley and the mashed garlic and mix again.

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Then add your bacalao pieces, and stir well to mix. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Ideally you should refrigerate overnight. But in this case, hell no. I was hungry!

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Heat grapeseed oil in a large pan. When smoking hot, drop in spoonfuls of the bacalao batter. Don’t crowd the pan, as too many cooking at once will drop the oil temperature, which is what makes fried food greasy.

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Cook 3-4 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel to drain.

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Serve beautifully with the black beans and the garlic-flavored yuca, and of course, some wine.

“In the name of the mambo, and the rumba, and the cha-cha-cha.”