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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Vaporetto 13 by Robert Girardi

Robert Girardi is one of my favorite “unknown” writers. He wrote Madeleine’s Ghost, which I blogged about previously, and Vaporetto 13 is another novel that combines cynicism, hope, the supernatural, and a gorgeous city as the backdrop. In this case, Venice. You can read about what makes Venice so uniquely gorgeous and special by checking out my food blog friend Luca Marchiori’s love letter to Venezia here. Or you can just read this book.

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When I first read Girardi’s novel, I fell in love with the city, and the dark, mysterious, beautiful, and yet sordid labyrinth of bridges, palazzos and stone that was described. Venice comes across like an aging prostitute who still looks beautiful and radiates charm, but yet has a dark, debauched side that also beckons. When I traveled to Venice a few years after reading this book, it struck me that these shadowy back alleys of The Eternal City juxtaposed with the bright, shiny, touristy Venezia, is the real Venice. It is both a jewel box of sumptuous colored glass and shimmering, watery reflections from the canal, and a dark, dank place of crowded buildings, garbage scows and stray cats.

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God, how I love Venice! It is my spiritual home. It is a city that is reflected back upon itself every minute in the waters of the Grand Canal, so full of of life and history and such extreme beauty that, at times, I found myself overwhelmed. There is, after all, only so much stunning golden light and beautiful canals and rosy architecture, that I can handle. Venice is sensory overload in the best sense of the word, and Girardi brings Venice to life so evocatively.

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Re-reading this book as many times as I have, I also have found myself loving the main character, Jack Squire, a money trader with a dark, cynical view on the world. I hated him when I first read the book, but as I have gotten older, I understand him much more. He seems a man that can’t ever be surprised by anything anymore, who looks on the world like a huge roulette table waiting on the ball to hit black, and yet there is still something shiny and hopeful in him that he tries to tuck away. I hate to admit it, but I still have this sense of idealism inside of me, for all that I feel surrounded by such an ugly world sometimes. I still want the good guy to win, I still want people to live happily ever after, I still want love to conquer all. So, it seems, does Jack. When he meets Caterina, a strange, otherworldly Venetian woman with strong ties to the past and history of La Serenissima,  he is struck by her oddness and yet enticed and enthralled by, that very same quality. She speaks to that part of him that is still young, hopeful and believing in miracles. They embark on a very mysterious love affair, yet he is never able to truly penetrate the mystery of who she is. Until the end, when he realizes who………and what…….she is. His view of the world is forever altered.

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One of the more entertaining characters is Jack’s friend, Rinio Donato, a quintessential Italian man, married, Catholic….and a complete womanizer. He is a hoot, and he drags Jack along to Torcello and other lagoon islands, including the very strange and creepy Sant’Ariano, adventuring, eating, and drinking as they go. The food descriptions alone are worth the read. In one passage, Jack attends a celebratory feast at Rinio’s house, where he is felt up by Rinio’s sister and gorges on a luscious Venetian feast that includes rolled veal chops stuffed with prosciutto and gorgonzola, and a salad of escarole, walnut and pear, which are just the precursors to the main feast, a roasted suckling pig with an apple in its mouth.

“The empty pasta bowls were cleared away and replaced with platters of rollini di vitelli – veal chops wrapped around prosciutto and gorgonzola cheese and baked in a marinade of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and white wine. Accompanying this was a salad of escarole, walnuts, and pears, and bottles of sweetish white wine from the Veneto. Italians eat slowly, their meals are long, drawn-out affairs, half food and wine, half air, which is to say animated conversation about nothing and everything.”

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I mean, how could anything stuffed with gorgonzola and prosciutto baked in lemon and olive oil and wine be bad? The store was out of escarole, so I instead opted for a salad of mixed greens with walnuts, pears and a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar and a bit of the blue cheese, to accompany the veal. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

2 veal chops, bone-in, about 1 inch thick apiece
Gorgonzola cheese, or other sharp blue
4 strips prosciutto, finely diced
1 shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup good, drinkable wine, red or white
5 cloves garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater

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Mixed greens – spinach, arugula and chicory is what I had on hand
Walnuts, toasted
2 pears, thinly sliced
Olive oil and lemon juice for the vinaigrette

METHOD

Pre-heat the oven to 375 F. In a small skillet, fry the prosciutto until just brown. Remove, and in the oil left in the pan, saute the diced shallot, with some red wine. Remove from the pan and let cool slightly, while you prepare your veal chops. Cut a small pocket into the veal, opposite side of the bone. Don’t cut all the way through the meat, just enough to be able to stuff the chop.

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Season the veal chops with salt and pepper. Mix the prosciutto and shallot with about half the packet of blue cheese, until nice and creamy but not melty. Stuff each veal chop with the mixture, and fasten with a toothpick to keep the cheese mixture inside the chop.

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In a good saute pan, heat a bit of olive oil and sear each veal chop about 3 minutes per side, but don’t char them. Let them rest a minute while you prepare the baking sauce. Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the white wine and the minced garlic in a cup and whisk together.

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Pour over the stuffed veal chops, reserving a bit for the end, cover, and put them in the oven for 15-20 minutes for a medium doneness, while you prepare the salad and vinaigrette, which is super difficult and time-consuming.

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Throw the mixed leaves into a large bowl, mix in the toasted walnuts, throw in the pears, sprinkle over a bit of the blue cheese, and then drizzle over a bit of olive oil, a bit more lemon juice, some sea salt,  and mix together vigorously. Pour over the salad and toss, probably with your hands to get the best amount of coating. That’s it. Very strenuous, as you can tell.

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You don’t want a lot of vinaigrette, just enough to lightly cover the salad, so using your very clean hands to toss is best here. When done mixing the salad, divide it onto two plates, take the veal from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Pour over the rest of the sauce you originally covered them with, put the chop onto the plate with the salad, and enjoy with some wine, preferably something light and Venetian, but hell, drink whatever type of wine you want! And you can do what I did, which was pretend I was sitting in a sunny cafe alongside the Grand Canal just off the Rialto Bridge, watching vaporettos and gondolas go by, and yearning for my Venice.

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“Still, as Rinio once said, what is a city, if not the people in it? What is Venice, without the peculiar, inventive race of men and women that built her up from the mud and reeds of the lagoon?”

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

I am a diehard Bond Girl. I’ve seen all the films, read all the books and of course, have my own opinions about who has been the best Bond of all. Having a major crush on Timothy Dalton, I am biased in his favor, but there is also something to be said for the talents (not to mention eye candy quality) of Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. All three are are quite handsome in a rough-hewn, craggy kind of way. Pierce Brosnan, though also quite a gorgeous specimen of the male gender, was a bit too polished and smooth for my taste. Roger Moore and George Lazenby were the weakest Bonds, in my book (haha!).

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In rereading Casino Royale, I came to the conclusion that the reason these rough-around-the-edges cinematic 007s are more to my taste is because they are closer to his book character, which is why I like them. A man who is elegant and polished, yet still has that roughness, that “throw down,” is incredibly sexy to me.

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James Bond is not a very likable character, for all his perspicacity as a spy. He’s witty, urbane, but with that dark edge that allows him to use people and not care about his effect in their lives. It’s not just with women, although they do tend to be rather interchangeable and disposable. As an agent provocateur, it is probably a matter of life or death to be able to sharply and coldly cut someone out of one’s life, and this aspect of Bond’s character is much more apparent in the books, as his thought process and internal meanderings are well described. In Casino Royale, you get the origin of his coldness toward women, when he meets and falls hard for Vesper Lynd, a fellow secret agent who initially is not very impressed with Bond…..which, of course, intrigues him It’s such a typically male response to a woman that it made me laugh.

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Vesper and Bond share a luxurious dinner at the Casino Royale, while they wait for the high-stakes gambler Le Chiffre, whom they have been sent to watch and infiltrate his empire. Bond tells Vesper to order expensively and do honor to her fabulous evening gown. She takes him at his word and they order their meals.

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“I’d like to start with caviar and then have a plain grilled rognon de veau with pommes souffles. And then I’d like to have fraises de bois with a lot of cream. Is it very shameless to be to certain and so expensive?” She smiled at him knowingly…………”While Mademoiselle is enjoying the strawberries, I will have half an avocado pear with a little French dressing.”

Fraises de bois are wild strawberries, and difficult to find in New Mexico. However, seeing as strawberries and cream are one of my desert island meals, with the tartness of strawberries contrasting so nicely with a lightly sweetened cream, I couldn’t not make it to go with the centerpiece meal. An avocado pear, which is a half-avocado stuffed with whatever you like, is delish! Lobster and avocado have a natural affinity for each other and I love them together, the jade green of the avocado and the deep pink of the cooked lobster creating a beautiful food palette that’s almost too gorgeous to eat. Almost. And you can’t beat lobster for sheer luxury. I got mine at Nantucket Shoals, and I highly recommend you visit there, either in person or via their website.

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This is the method that worked for me for the stuffed avocado pear, taken from the great Emeril Lagasse, but with a few tweaks by me. Enjoy!

INGREDIENTS

For the avocado pear:
2 large avocadoes
2 cups lobster meat, cooked and finely cubed
1 tablespoon homemade mayonnaise (see method below)
1 teaspoon of truffle oil

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Juice of one medium lemon
Fresh chives, finely chopped

METHOD
Mix together the lobster meat, the mayonnaise and the truffle oil. Let the flavors mingle in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes.

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Add the lemon juice and taste for seasoning. Sprinkle in some sea salt if you think it needs it, but the homemade mayo has plenty of flavor and saltiness, so you may not.

Halve the avocadoes and carefully scoop out the meat, retaining their shape so that they form green cups. Squeeze over a bit of lemon juice to keep the avocadoes from blackening.

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Put a large spoonful of the lobster mixture into each avocado half, so you have four tasty little green cups full of seafood heaven! Garnish with the chives and admire the beautiful pink and green deliciousness before chowing down. 007 would most certainly approve of this avocado pear!

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The homemade mayo was simply one egg yolk (organic and free range), 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, one teaspoon of white wine vinegar, one teaspoon of lemon juice, a half-teaspoon of sea salt, and incorporated very slowly and whisked in drop by drop, a 3/4 cup of regular olive oil – all at room temperature. Don’t use a blender or it will be runny. I hand-whisked for 20 minutes and although it is quite an arm workout, the end result is so worth it.

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The strawberries, I simply marinated in Amaretto and lemon juice for about an hour, while I whipped some heavy cream with sugar and a dash or two of Campari liqueur. The Campari makes the cream a gorgeous, pale pink, like the inside of a seashell. It creates such a beautiful accent for the glistening, red strawberries. You pile it into a fancy glass and eat. Or, if James Bond were to drop by, you could have him feed it to you, berry by berry. (sigh)  A girl can dream!

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I would be a terrible Bond girl if I didn’t include this classic paragraph:

“A dry martini,” Bond said. “In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordons, one of Vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

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Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society by Charles French

Being a fan of anything paranormal, I quite enjoyed Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society, although there were some pretty gruesome parts, too. (And I admit that I was too damn hungry to pause for my usual book-and-food photo, so I improvised and did one with a glass of the wine I used in the recipe and the book itself……….see above.) I mean, I can handle horror and great scares, but I don’t do gore very well. Anyway, this book centers around three scholars who investigate paranormal goings-on. They have an investigative society, and it actually reminded me of the Chowder Society in Peter Straub’s creepy book Ghost Story, except that here, they take a much more active role.

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The three scholars, Roosevelt, Jeremy and Sam, are all grieving in their own ways, and this is part of what bonds them and makes up the very interesting back story. They’ve formed the Investigative Paranormal Society due to their individual interests in the supernatural and when they’re asked to investigate a “haunting” of a teacher’s niece, they instead find that the niece is being slowly possessed by the evil spirit of Maledicus, who’s a true badass evil bastard whose spirit was trapped in a statue in Ancient Rome for his horrific deeds and whose sheer evil spirit is so powerful that whoever takes possession of the statue throughout history is then possessed by his nasty spirit to wreak havoc. And boy, does he!

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Maledicus is pretty horrible in the book, and I had to skip over some of the more gruesome depictions of his torture methods. The characterizations of all the main characters are great, particularly the aunt Helen, but I like strong women. Charles French (you can see more of his writing here) is a really compelling writer, and his overall story hooked me quickly. My only real beef, and this is just my own style preference, was that the characters’ personalities were revealed very quickly in the narration. I prefer to slowly learn about characters through their actions, rather than have everything about them explained from the off. But that’s just me, and a minor complaint.

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Anyway, Michael Bruno is one of Roosevelt’s oldest friends and a Catholic priest in the book, and when Roosevelt asks him to take part in an exorcism attempt to forever rid the world of Maledicus from the body of the little girl, they do it over a delicious Italian meal, which of course, includes a bottle of Chianti. As well it should!

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Marcelo’s was a small Italian restaurant located approximately halfway between Bethberg and St. Bernard’s College. Since both Father Bruno and Roosevelt enjoyed Italian food, it was a natural meeting place for the two men……….They had finished their main courses: Bruno ate Scungilli Alla Marinara, and Roosevelt had Shrimp Scampi. They were sharing a bottle of Chianti. Roosevelt poured another glass for both of them.

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Shrimp scampi is a funny play on words, because the word “scampi” is one of the Italian words for shrimp, so you’re having shrimp shrimp when you eat it. I just love a cute foodie play on words, which is probably why scampi is my favorite shrimp dish to make. I cooked this version, using rosé wine, and it was DELICIOUS! And the best part is you can drink the rest of the wine with the meal! Win-win. Anyway, this is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
3 lbs raw shrimp, shelled and deveined (enough for 5-6 people)
8 cloves of garlic, 4 grated and 4 thinly sliced
5-6 green onions
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup rosé wine
1/2 stick unsalted butter
3 lemons
Fresh parsley for garnishing

METHOD
Slice the garlic into thin slivers.

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Do the same with the green onion.

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Gently saute in a pan with the butter, olive oil, and salt.

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Add the wine and the juice of two lemons and let simmer another few minutes, until the sauce reduces and thickens.

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Toss in the shrimp and let cook until they are pink. Don’t overcook them or they’ll be rubbery. And who wants to eat a rubbery shrimp? Not I!

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Serve over Basmati rice that you’ve cooked in chicken broth, and garnish with the parsley and lemon slices. The sauce is divine, and with that much garlic, you’ll be certain to ward off any evil spirit, even one as god-awful as Maledicus!

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Probably one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something, because I love ghost stories. The Haunting of Hill House is effective because it doesn’t actually show any ghosts, there are no murderers chasing anyone, no demons possessing souls, no vampires sucking blood, no monsters under the bed. There is just the house, which both epitomizes and contains what we should call pure evil.

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I remember reading this book one very hot summer when I was in my early 20s, sitting outside on a shaded patio while the sun blazed overhead. Not a remotely scary environment in which to read a ghost story, and yet I was totally freaked out reading this book. Every noise made me jump, every shadow in my peripheral vision seemed threatening, and I ended up sleeping with the lamp on that night.

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What’s interesting in this book is the house itself is a character. It has as many characteristics as the four people who come to stay in it for a week, studying the supernatural environment Hill House is known for and hoping to evoke otherwordly occurrences. Boy, do they!  The main character, Eleanor, around whom the novel revolves, is probably one of the more irritating characters in literature. She’s an interesting character study if you can get past her annoyingness, though. Is she insane? Is she psychic? Is everyone in the house having a collective supernatural hallucination? Is Eleanor as alienated as she feels, or is she just super self-centered? My God, I wanted to smack her at times! Perhaps readers are supposed to feel sorry for her, yet when she took off up that spiral staircase and made everyone chase her, I found myself snapping at her  “Pull your head out of your ass, woman!”

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Early in the book, as Eleanor makes her way toward Hill House and her fate, she loses herself in imaginings about what her life will be like going forward. She passes a lovely house in a town with stone lions outside, and daydreams of her life there, being waited upon and  served meals.

A little dainty old lady took care of me, moving starchily with a silver tea service on a tray and bringing me a glass of elderberry wine each evening for my health’s sake. I took my dinner alone in the long, quiet dining room at the gleaming table……..I dined upon a bird, and radishes from the garden, and homemade plum jam.

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I wanted to recreate this simple-sounding meal in my own style, but I wasn’t about to go full-on Martha Stewart and make my own plum jam. So I did a little research and found this recipe for roasted chicken with plums, which is Persian in origin with the sumac seasoning, and that sounded marvelous. I added a few of my own touches,using chicken thighs instead of a whole bird, roasting and caramelizing lemons with the plums, and because I am all about roasting vegetables, alongside the chicken I served sliced radishes seasoned with olive oil, garlic and lemon zest.

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
For the chicken:
12 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
2 lemons , quartered
2 tablespoons ground sumac, found at Middle Eastern groceries or click here
2 tablespoons ground allspice
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
Zest of 1 whole lemon
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Sea salt and ground black pepper
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup fruity wine, red or white. I actually used a rose wine.

For the plums:
2 red or black plums, cut into chunks
2 shallots, finely diced
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Olive oil
Sea salt and ground black pepper

METHOD

Make sure your birds are at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Lay your chicken thighs skin-side up in a large roasting pan. Mix the sumac, allspice, cinnamon, lemon zest, minced garlic salt and pepper together in a bowl, add the olive oil and pour this over the chicken. Add the lemon, pour over the wine, cover and cook for 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Chop up the plums into rough chunks and mix with the sliced shallots, cinnamon, allspice, salt, pepper, the honey, and olive oil. Mix together and let the flavors combine.

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Add the plums to the chicken during the last 30 minutes  of cooking at 350F, and leave them in when you increase the heat and bronze the thighs at 450F.

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Remove the foil from the chicken, turn up the oven to 450F, and cook for another 30 minutes so the bird pieces get bronze and the skin crisps up. When you remove the chicken for the last time to cool before serving, give a final stir so that cooked plums mingle with the flavors of the bird, the lemon, and all the spices and seasonings. Let rest, and serve with the lemon-zested roasted radishes. A marvelous dish! Exotic, subtle flavors and somewhat complex, with just a hint of the Casbah, yet familiar enough to taste comfortingly of home.

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The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

I didn’t actually intend to blog this book, not that it wasn’t enjoyable but because I had actually forgotten I had it on my bookshelves. As fortune would have it, I found some late-summer squash blossoms at my nearby grower’s market yesterday morning, along with many other garden goodies. Anyway, back to the book. Set in Italy, obviously, The Tuscan Child is a pretty good read about a young woman named Joanna whose father Hugo has died and left her what’s left of his property and fortune in England. Arranging his funeral, she naturally has to go through letters and paperwork and discovers among his things a love letter from a woman named Sofia. Sofia, it turns out, rescued Hugo during WWII, when his fighter plane was shot down over her Tuscan village of San Salvatore, and of course, they fall in love. But of course, true love never runs smoothly, particularly during a world war when the country you’ve been trapped in is invaded by disgusting Nazis.

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The book is told from two viewpoints and in two points in history. Joanna and her journey from England to Italy to learn more about Sofia and the Tuscan child she mentions in her letter, wanting to find out if this woman and her father had a baby together. Hugo’s story details his plane crash, how he and Sofia fall in love, and the occupation of Italy during WWII, which was fascinating to me. I never realized that Italy actually turned on Germany and surrendered to the Allied Forces, but the fact that the Nazi army was still actually physically in Italy made it much more difficult to fight them, since the Nazis were particularly nasty after their one-time partners turned against them.

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Hugo is part of the Allied effort to fully get the Nazis out of Italy when his plane is shot down. He hides in an old, abandoned church and is found by Sofia, who has struggles of her own in the village. Her husband is gone, feared dead and later in the book, she is accused of collaborating with the Nazis. And poor Joanna is kind of an annoying character, initially whiny and passive and self-pitying. It’s not until she goes to Italy to find Hugo and Sofia’s “Tuscan child” that she starts taking initiative, seeing the bigger picture, and essentially growing up.  She stays in San Salvatore with a wonderful woman named Paola, her daughter Angelina, and Angelina’s newborn daughter. Probably the best parts of this book were the cooking passages. Of course, being in Tuscany, there has to be food and food galore is part of this book. Paola cooks homemade pasta, brodo with tomatoes and stale bread, artichokes, asparagus, and the thing that made me get this book out and reread it for today’s post – the stuffed squash blossoms.

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“Let’s get on with the meal, Mamma. I am hungry and I am sure Signorina Joanna is, too.” “Then lay the table and slice the bread,” Paola said, going ahead of us into the cool kitchen. “And put out the salami and the cheese and wash those radishes.” She turned to me. “Now pay attention if you want to see how we stuff the zucchini blossoms.” She put some of the white cheese into a bowl, chopped up and added some of the herb I had now decided was mint, then grated some lemon zest on it. Then she took a spoon and carefully stuffed this mixture into each of the blossoms.

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I’d had them when I visited Italy a few years ago and they were divine, lightly coated with a lemony batter and stuffed with creamy, herbed cheese so I decided that, having found these beautiful yellow flowers, I was going to make them. So I did.

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INGREDIENTS
12 squash blossoms
3/4 cup of flour
1 teaspoon sea salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup of San Pellegrino sparkling limonata or any lemon seltzer
1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
Lemon zest to taste
Fresh mint
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet until shimmering.

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Finely chop the mint. I got to bust out the mezzaluna for this so I was happy.

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Mix the mint with the Ricotta cheese and zest the lemon into this mixture. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper as needed.

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Gently open the squash blossoms and stuff each cavity with the lemony, minty cheese mixture. The smell is awesome, with the cool mint offset by the sharp lemon.

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Don’t overfill them or they won’t close. Seal them by twisting together the head petals. Set aside.

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Prepare the batter by adding the salt and pepper to the flour, mixing together, and slowly pouring in the limonata. Stir to mix until you have a relatively thick batter for coating the flowers.

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Dip each stuffed blossom into the batter, shake off the excess, and fry for about 2 minutes per side, until golden brown.

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Let drain on paper towels and devour!

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And if you have any batter left, throw in some shaved Parmesan and make cheesy fritters. They were an excellent accompaniment to these gorgeous squash blossoms.

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The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

Though an interesting read, it was also occasionally difficult to continue The Sea, The Sea, so convoluted are the mental musings of Charles Arrowby, the main character. I never fully connected to him or any other character, though the setting – an isolated house on a cliff overlooking the ocean – sounds appropriately Gothic and Romantic and just where I would like to spend my summer vacation. Minus the sea dragons, of course.

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Charles is a pain in the ass, quite frankly. He’s arrogant as hell, he writes about the most mundane things in his daily life as though they were momentous occasions, and he suffers under grand delusions that he is adored and that everyone sees the world in the exact same way he does – with him at the center of everything. Although, as he starts having his “delusions,” I felt a bit sorry for him; and when he becomes convinced that his first love, Hartley, still carries a torch for him (even though she’s been married for years, has children and shows no desire to rekindle the flame), I felt like he was crossing the line into total madness.

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I think it’s safe to say that the sea is supposed to be something of a parallel for Charles’s moods. It’s calm, he has his moments of calmness. It rages and wreaks havoc………so does he in the lives of those he claims to care for. It’s a fascinating read, if you can work through all the daily detail and the inner workings of a rather twisted male mind (though I’ve yet to meet a male mind that wasn’t twisted). But the luscious descriptions of food and meals that he eats and details in his diary were his saving grace and provided me with a lot of cooking inspiration.

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Lentil soup with chipolata sausages and onions and apples! Scrambled eggs with frankfurters and grilled tomatoes with garlic! Corned beef with red cabbage and pickled walnuts! Baked potatoes with cream cheese and lemon! Macaroni and cheese with garlic, basil, olive oil, more cheese and courgettes (which are zucchini – I had to look that one up.) Anchovy paste on toast with baked beans, tomatoes, celery, lemon juice and olive oil!  He also drinks wine by the gallon, so he isn’t completely without good qualities. And the man loves his food. As do we all.

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“Of course reading and thinking are important, but my God, food is important, too. How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.”

I love lentil soup, and recently found a delicious one, and here’s the wonderful recipe, on Chocolate and Zucchini’s most excellent blog. I used it as a base, but as usual, with my own added taste tweaks. Having recently purchased my first stove-top grill pan, some grilled shrimp also seemed to be in order. And with that vacuum-sealed bag of fresh, peeled chestnuts waiting in my pantry……..It was meant to be.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 red onion, peeled
4 cloves of garlic
1 rib of celery
1 and 1/2 cups lentils, any type
3 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 and 1/2 cups fresh chestnuts, peeled
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups shrimp, deveined and thawed, but still with their tails attached
Wooden skewers soaked in water for an hour

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METHOD
Chop the onion and garlic in a food processor, or with a mezzaluna. I love using my mezzaluna. It makes even a total klutz like me look like I know what I’m doing.

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In a large pan, heat the butter and olive oil. Add the chopped garlic and onion, sprinkle over some salt and pepper, and cook on low for about 10 minutes. The smell will rise up and hit your nose like savory heaven! Then, add the fresh herbs and stir for another five minutes.

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Add the bay leaves and the lentils and give them a good stir, so they get covered with the oil, butter and cooked veggies.

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Add the chicken broth and the bouillon paste. Stir gently, lower the heat, cover with a (preferably see-through) lid, and cook at a very low simmer for 30 minutes.

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After half an hour, add the chestnuts. Cook another 30 minutes.

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I know it’s hard, but try your hardest to resist taking the lid off and stirring the lentils while cooking. Try really hard. When they keep getting hit with air and being stirred during cooking, they get mushy. So just don’t. Have a glass of wine to distract yourself if you must.

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You can either use a stick blender or a regular blender to puree this soup into a thick, luscious, unctuous mix. I chose the stick blender simply because it’s easier to clean, and I enjoy watching the puree process. I’m weird like that.

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Cover the pureed soup to stay warm, and heat your grill pan. Sprinkle garlic powder, salt and pepper onto the shrimp for seasoning. Then, thread 5-6 shrimp on a waterlogged skewer, and grill in the heated grill pan. Watch the shrimp closely and when they get pink and striped like a tiger, immediately remove.

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Cook the bacon in the same pan, and when cool, crumble.

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Decant the soup into bowls and add a swirl of heavy cream to each one. Garnish with the beautiful grilled shrimp, and bacon, unless you’re a vegetarian……and if you are, my sincere condolences.

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Eat, in Charles Arrowby style, with great enjoyment and copious amounts of red wine.

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The soup is lovely, well seasoned, and the shrimp add a delicious, saline note that wonderfully offsets the richness of the chestnuts and the earthiness of the lentils. Soooooo good, and rewarms beautifully and deliciously the next day, too.

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

Any book set in Venice is always moved to the top of my reading list. And of course, any book set in Venice about cooking and food is going to have the most special place in my heart. The Book of Unholy Mischief definitely takes the cake here! Luciano is the narrator, a young boy who is rescued from homelessness, poverty and theft on the streets of Venice. His rescuer is Chef Ferrero, who is chef to the Doge of Venice himself, and when he saves Luciano, he takes him back to the Doge’s Palace, cleans him up, and gives him a job as his apprentice. Ferrero is no ordinary chef, though. He is a rock star! In the late 1400s, not many chefs would be so adventurous as to try food from the New World such as potatoes, but Chef Ferrero does. He is also at the center of a conspiracy theory that encompasses Luciano as the book progresses……….think Chocolat meets The Da Vinci Code……though that is oversimplifying it somewhat.

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Luciano continues his education in the Doge’s kitchen under Ferrero’s tutelage, learning more about food than he ever dreamed – a typical bildungsroman, but set among the wealthy and learned of Venice. Of course, the plot is not all about food though – a mystical book purporting to give immortality to those who can decipher its secrets is said to be in Venice, and with his native intelligence, Luciano starts to suspect that Chef Ferrero (who he has come to see as a father figure) might well possess this book and be using it in his innovative and magical cooking techniques.

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Well, hell. A book about food, about cooking, about mystical books, about Venice………of course I had to read it! All my favorite things all in one place! The food descriptions, in particular, are enough to make any foodie weep with joy as the sensual and beautiful pleasure of cheese, wine, meat, olives, cakes, spices and herbs, seafood, are detailed in amazingly graphic and drool-inciting images and words. Even humble foods like onions, which we all tend to overlook, are given a power when glorified and honored by the Chef himself as he talks about the effect of food upon the human psyche.

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My eyes watered from the onion fumes, and the stinging tears diverted my curiosity. I aked, “Why do onions make us cry?” Chef Ferrero shrugged as a tear slid down his cheek. “You may as well ask why one cries in the presence of great art, or at the birth of a child. Tears of awe, Luciano. Let them flow.” I wiped my eyes but the chef let tears roll freely down his face. A tear dripped from his chin as he scooped up the diced onion for the stockpot. His awe would season the soup.

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I just love that passage. It exemplifies the joys of the most simple foods in cooking, and also reminds me that it’s the most simple and humble of foods that create the most awesome flavors. How boring and tasteless most savory dishes would be without the addition of onion? I shudder to think. And with that in mind, I was inspired to make onions the star of a dish instead of an ingredient, so here we go with roasted onions with fennel, red wine vinegar, and basil, taken from my idol Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book Nigellissima. I made this amazing dish as part of a birthday meal for my dear friend Jade and her two sons, including a fantastic white cake with white vanilla buttercream frosting. It was only my third time ever making a white cake from scratch, and I was quite pleased with how everything turned out.

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INGREDIENTS
4 medium red onions
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh cracked pepper
4 cups of fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Sea salt to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 425F. Slice the onions lengthwise, keeping the stems. Like this.

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Arrange on a baking tray and pour over the olive oil.

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Sprinkle with the fennel seeds and black pepper.

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Bake for an hour, then remove and add sea salt. The onions will have darkened and crisped up outside, with the insides softened. Let cool, then sprinkle over the red wine vinegar.

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Add the basil leaves like you would a salad, and add more vinegar and salt if it needs it.

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It’s delicious, light and a perfect side accompaniment to a heavier meat or pasta dish. The fennel seed echoes the slight licorice flavor of the basil, and the red wine vinegar offsets it beautifully. So good and easy!

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Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

An interesting microcosm of history, Salt essentially takes us back through the known history of the world, and analyzes how this humble little rock – the only rock humans can eat – and how it has had a transforming effect upon civilization. To be honest, however, there were large chunks of the book that weren’t terribly interesting, so I’d veer from jaw-aching boredom to total fascination. What I enjoyed the most were the snippets of specific cooking history – obviously – and the recipes utilizing salt as a preservative from ancient times.

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I am not normally a fan of non-fiction, and about the only non-fiction books I’ve read recently or blogged about are food memoirs. I read to escape our sometimes-mundane existence, so the last thing I want is to be bogged down in lengthy details of reality. This book, however, took me on a journey spanning the globe and timeline of the world, from ancient Rome, where Roman soldiers were actually paid in salt, hence the term “worth his salt” to modern-day Cajun country where shellfish are salted and preserved.

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Salting has been in use as a food preservative since time immemorial, which if you think about it, has a direct effect upon health, winning battles, and otherwise having a culture and society survive and flourish. It is believed to keep evil spirits away, and has been used in medicine to draw moisture and infection out of wounds.

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The science of salt is dull, but not being a scientist or a linear thinker, that’s just me. I find salt interesting insofar as it spices up food, acts as a cleaning agent for my cast iron pans, and I also use it sprinkled across all of my doors and windows in my home to keep out negative energy and evil. Laugh if you want, but for me, it works.

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Some of the more fascinating tidbits I learned from this book include: the fact that Gandhi’s famous march against the British was in protest of salt restrictions; one of the reasons why George Washington fought against the British was against salt shortages; that flamingos get their brilliant pink hue from salt; that salt in the oceans is what keeps our fish alive; that anchovies are the basis for Worchestershire sauce; and that without salt, we wouldn’t have things like soy sauce, cheese, preserved anchovies or preserved walnuts. Which would seriously suck, because not only are cheese, walnuts and anchovies among my favorite foods ever, but they also make up the base of today’s gastro-porn recipe, based on these two passages from the book.

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Since the time of ancient Greece, anchovies have been the most praised salted fish of the Mediterranean, and since the Middle Ages those of Colliore have been regarded as the best salted anchovies in the world.

By the seventeenth century, the English had discovered that salted anchovies would melt into a sauce. This practice may have existed centuries earlier on the continent, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, anchovy sauces became extremely popular.

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Not having been raised to eat anchovies, I didn’t try them until adulthood when I first made pasta alla puttanesca. I was hooked on these little salty nuggets of flavor from that day on. And for all those people who freak out over anchovies in their food, calm the f*ck down already. You can’t even taste the fish, it just gives a lovely, salty flavor. So get out of your comfort zone and eat an anchovy! Or make this recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup olive oil
6-7 garlic cloves
8 anchovy fillets
1 lb. spinach spaghetti (or whatever type you like)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
Fresh ground black pepper
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

METHOD
Boil your pasta water, salt it, and put in the pasta. Cook until al dente, roughly 7 minutes but try it first. Al dente texture varies depending on the type of pasta you use.

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Slice the garlic cloves into thin slivers.

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Chop the walnuts and toast them in a dry non-stick pan until they brown and you can smell their nutty scent. Set aside.

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In the same pan, add olive oil and saute the garlic cloves for up to 10 minutes.

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Chop the anchovies and add them to the garlic and oil. Cook on medium low until they begin to melt and break down.

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Drain the pasta and reserve one cupful of the cooking water.

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Add the cooled walnuts and some of the chopped parsley to the anchovies and garlic, and add in a bit of the pasta water, which helps the sauce thicken and amalgamate, due to the starches released during boiling.

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Grate in the Pecorino Romano cheese, add in the lemon juice, stir, then take a tongful (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) of pasta and add it to the sauce in the pan, doing that cool twirly motion that all the best Italian chefs make look so very easy.

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Cook another couple of minutes, just to make sure the cheese melts, then serve. WOW! The anchovy, lemon, parsley, walnuts and cheese are such an amazing combination. Please try this, if only to challenge your preconceived notions about anchovies.

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