Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

One of my Christmas gifts, this book is one of the most compelling that I’ve read in ages. I’m a terrible literary snob, as I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows my blog, and I am very picky about what I read. So when I am compelled by a book, for me I know it’s a keeper. Once Upon a River combines the sensation of a fairy tale with the scientific sensibilities of the late Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and advances in science and technology were nearly daily occurrences. The titular river is based on the Thames, but it’s not quite the same Thames River nor is the timeframe ever truly specified. The feeling is one of magical realism, and though I have previously said that only the Latin American writers can truly do magical realism well, I have to slightly alter my opinion on this and include Diane Setterfield in that category.

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The river flows past a pub in which the regulars gather to drink and tell stories, either fables from long ago, made-up tales about goings-on in their own midst, or more rarely, about Quietly, the mythical riverboat man who helps those who are in danger of drowning and, in true Charon-like fashion, takes those whose time it is to the other side. Very Greek mythology, River Styx symbolism. A stranger stumbles in one night covered in blood and carrying a little girl in his arms. The village nurse, Rita, knows she is dead, so when the little girl comes back to life, you know a mystery is afoot. But who is the child? Is she the long-lost daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Or is she the granddaughter of the multiracial farmer Armstrong? Or possibly the sister of Lily White, who vanished mysteriously and whose disappearance is the framework of Lily’s story itself.

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It’s difficult to describe this book, because it’s so unique. The lyricism of the prose is the standout quality of the book, yet the mystery of who the girl truly is, combined with the interwoven stories of all the village inhabitants and how they have all ended up where they are, is just as fascinating. I loved Rita’s character, but I love strong women so of course she was my favorite. A trained nurse with an intense knowledge of medical matters, she applies her intellect and reason to all things to try and figure them out. It is she who attempts to solve the mystery of the girl from the river.

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The child is herself a mystery, as she never speaks, obsessively watches the river and seems to be longing for her father. She takes on qualities of all three missing little girls, and at times, seems to be all of them and none of them. A true enigma, her coming seems to also usher in a time of miracles and mysteries. A longtime bachelor of the village, Mr. Albright, is suddenly compelled to propose to his longtime housekeeper/mistress and their summertime wedding is one of the most charmingly described scenes in the book, though the mystery of the girl continues to be a hot topic.

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After the speeches, talk of the girl was renewed. Events that had taken place on this very riverbank, in the dark and in the cold, were retold under an azure sky, and perhaps it was an effect of the sunshine, but the darker elements of the tale were swept away and a simple, happier narrative came to the fore…….The cider cups were refilled, the little Margots came one after the other and indistinguishably with plates of ham and cheese and radishes, and the wedding party had enough joy to drown out all doubt……Mr. Albright kissed Mrs. Albright, who blushed red as the radishes, and at noon precisely the party rose as one to continue celebrations by joining the fair.

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Radishes and cheese sounded like an oddly good combination, so I did a little research and found these delicious cheddar-radish-carrot scones at the Fiction Kitchen Podcast, which is one of my absolute favorites and who I keep hoping will want to collaborate with me someday. If you know anyone over at Fiction Kitchen podcast, put in a good word for yours truly, ok? Anyway, my method is based on their wonderful scones that were actually inspired by the Peter Rabbit series of books, but of course I added in my own flavoring tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
12 baby carrots
12 radishes
4-5 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/4 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons dried onion
3-4 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 stick (or 8 tablespoons) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and wash and slice the carrots and radishes. Lay them on a baking tray, sprinkle over the garlic powder and the olive oil, and roast for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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In a bowl, mix together the flour, the baking powder, the sea salt, the dried onion, and the black pepper.

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In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, with the pastry hook attachment, mix the dry ingredients together with the butter cubes, a few at a time, until a crumbly dough forms.

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Combine the heavy cream and the egg together with a whisk.

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In a food chopper, finely mince the radishes and carrots.

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Mix together the shredded cheeses with the vegetables, then pour over the cream-egg mixture. Stir well to combine.

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A spoonful at a time, add this to the dry ingredients, and mix together at a medium speed until a sticky ball of dough forms.

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Put the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

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Cover a flat surface with flour, and roll out the dough. It is fairly sticky, so flour your rolling pin as well.

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Cut out round shapes with a biscuit cutter and lay them on a lined baking tray. Sprinkle over a little shredded cheddar on top of each scone, then bake for 20 minutes and allow to cool.

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Oh my, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite as tasty as they were, and although mine didn’t rise (I probably need some newer baking powder), the cheesy flavor combined with the roasted savoriness of the radish and carrot gave it a wonderful flavor! Excellent with a nice bowl of soup on a cold day, or even as breakfast! Thanks, Food Fiction Podcast, for the inspiration!

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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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The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare

Ah Hamlet, the tragic and doomed Prince of Denmark, whose family puts the “fun” in dysfunctional. What I always liked about Hamlet is that his twisted family dynamic makes my own family look rather normal in comparison. Or maybe it goes to show that we all have messed-up family dynamics, and sometimes, as in Hamlet’s case, we can be one of the most messed-up members within it.

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I read the play in its entirety in 11th grade Honors English class, and it also helped seeing movie versions and having those characters brought to life by various actors, but when I saw Kenneth Branagh’s opulent, glorious, 4-hour long movie, that was possibly when I fell in love with Hamlet and all his arrogant, sad, romantic pain.

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He wants so much to do the right thing and avenge his father, and who can blame him?  What I could never understand was his turning on poor Ophelia. Talk about doomed love. That poor girl, all she wanted was to love him and help him and his perception of the world around him and his anger toward women – his mother particularly – twists his love for her and makes himreject her. And in her despair, she commits the ultimate act of pain and drowns herself.

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His rage at his mother’s betrayal is the pivot point from which most of the major actions happen. Hamlet is so angry at her weakness and for marrying his uncle so quickly after the death of his father, and he scalds her with his words. The guy could cut with his tongue, that’s for certain, and when he uses the analogy of the food served at his father’s funeral as being part of the wedding feast, it’s the ultimate food play on words.

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Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven or ever had I seen that day, Horatio! My father, methinks I see my father.

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Baked meats were often encased in pastry, called coffins, in Elizabethan times, when The Bard wrote his masterpiece. In an upscale Elizabethan kitchen, many spices would be used to flavor the meats, including nutmeg, pepper, onion, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and sugar. I opted to make baked chicken mini pies – baked chicken in a “coffin”, using a pastry method taken from Elizabethan times via Tori Avey’s awesome food site, and making filling spiced with paprika, a tiny hint of nutmeg and cinnamon, mushrooms, heavy cream, and a bit of Parmesan cheese, which I had lying around and needed to use.

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INGREDIENTS
For the pastry dough:
1 cup of cold water
1 stick of butter, cut into cubes
3 cups flour
2 egg yolks at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt

For the filling:
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon garlic powder
3 chicken thighs, poached or roasted, and finely cubed
1 cup wilted spinach
1 cup mushrooms, also wilted
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
1 egg, beaten with salt and a bit of water

METHOD
Put the flour and salt into the bowl of your most awesome Kitchen Aid mixer, and gradually add the butter chunks. Mix using the pastry hook attachment at medium low speed.

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Add the egg yolks and mix to incorporate.

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Keep mixing on low, and gradually add the water, until the mixture forms a ball of dough. Wrap in plastic, let rest for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat the oven to 375F. While the dough rests, combine the spices with the cooked chicken, the mushrooms and spinach, and the heavy cream in a saucepan. Stir until well warmed through, taste for seasoning, and sprinkle in the Parmesan.

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Divide the dough into 4 pieces, and roll each quarter out into sheets of roughly 1/2 inch thickness. Cut rounds using a biscuit cutter.

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Fill each round with the chicken-spinach-mushroom mixture.

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Rub some water around the dough edge, and press over another pastry round to form a little pie. Press the edges with a fork tine to seal, and brush with beaten egg mixed with a bit of water and some salt.

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Bake for 50 minutes, or until golden brown and you can smell the spices and chicken. Very tasty, just as the Bard would have wanted.

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The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

Thanks to AL for the photography.

Being a sucker for fairy tales, The Snow Queen is a particular favorite. I remember reading it as a little girl and being fascinated by the oh-so-foreign Northern European world of Gerda and Kay, the two children in this tale, though I’d forgotten there are several small backstories that lead up to the actual tale in which Gerda rescues Kay from the icy heart and clutches of the Snow Queen.

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What’s cool about the Snow Queen is that she’s not actually evil, in the way of similar archetypal figures in The Brothers Grimm. She is simply ice-cold, and has a coldly calm and logical outlook on life. I appreciated that she wasn’t a cardboard evil queen and there was actually some psychology in Andersen’s description of her.

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I was quite interested to find out that this classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale inspired both the irritating Disney movie Frozen, and the wonderful Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which are among my most favorite children’s books. I can definitely recognize The White Witch from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe here.

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This story starts with a naughty hobgoblin who creates a looking-glass that reflects purely negative things, either things that exist in the world or in the perceptions of human beings. The glass breaks, and is scattered all over the world, into the hearts and eyes of humans across the world, making them unable to see or feel anything good or happy or positive in the world. Kay, the young boy who gets splinters in both his eye and heart, and is taken prisoner by the Snow Queen. Gerda, Kay’s best friend who loves him dearly, sets off on a quest to bring him back, and along the way, has some unusual adventures. My favorite was when she meets the Little Robber Girl, a wild child in the company of a band of thieves who kidnap Gerda. The Little Robber Girl is a rather brutal creature, though she does save Gerda’s life and offer her freedom to continue on her quest. When the thieves capture Gerda and bring her to their camp in the care of the Little Robber Girl, Gerda, who is starving, notices “there was no chimney; so the smoke went up to the ceiling, and found a way out for itself. Soup was boiling in a large cauldron, and hares and rabbits were roasting on the spit.”

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I started thinking about how to combine these two food references, and pondered making rabbit stew. But because I can’t bring myself to eat cute, furry bunnies, I reconsidered. The soup could be any type of soup, and being in a caramelizing mood, I decided French onion soup with Welsh rarebit croutons on top, in place of the traditional baguette and melted Gruyere, would be fun and tasty. Welsh rarebit is actually called Welsh rabbit in some areas, which was partly my inspiration.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on Tyler Florence’s French Onion Soup recipe, and the hilariously funny and smart Alton Brown’s recipe for Welsh rarebit. The requisite flavor tweaks by me were, of course included.

For the French onion soup:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 red onions, sliced
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4 garlic cloves, chopped
5-6 fresh thyme sprigs
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2 bay leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup red wine, about 1/2 bottle
2 quarts beef broth
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 tomato bouillon cube
For the Welsh rarebit sauce:
1 large slice of sourdough bread
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

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2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 large tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
1/2 cup Gruyere

METHOD
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pan. Add the onion, garlic and thyme, and some salt and pepper to taste. Stir together on low heat.

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Add about a half-cup of good red wine to the caramelizing onions, and continue to stir. This is leisure cooking, so be prepared to cook low and slow. I personally find caramelizing onions to be incredibly therapeutic, like making risotto. You just stir and stir and stir, adding a bit of this or a bit of that to enhance the flavors.

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This is what you want your onions to look like. Depending on how low or high your heat, this may take 30 minutes or 2 hours.2016-12-11-17-26-25_resized

Add in your homemade beef broth to the onions, and toss in the bay leaves. If you’re lucky enough to have a friend who loves to make stock, ask her to provide you some. Otherwise, use boxed beef broth but get a good, organic brand. The taste is just better.

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Simmer the broth and onions low and slow again for about an hour. Add the rest of the red wine, and the two bouillon cubes, and continue to cook very low, covered. The longer you cook this soup, the more the flavors will mingle so this is a perfect Sunday afternoon dish.

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While the soup is slowly simmering and filling your kitchen with the warm scent of beef and onions, make the rarebit sauce. Melt the butter in a smaller saucepan, and whisk in the flour gradually but thoroughly so as not to have that floury taste.

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Add the Worchestershire sauce, and the Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and whisk together. Taste for seasoning at this point.

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Add the heavy cream and the milk here, and stir together. You’ll see it thickening and browning slightly as you continue to whisk. This is good. You want it to brown somewhat, as that will add to the flavor.

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Now it’s time to add the grated cheddar and Gruyere. Whisk in these two cheeses until they melt thoroughly. Don’t let them form a lump, as that will not be attractive.

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Turn down the heat, add a bit more milk, and then toast the bread.

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Ladle the soup into a bowl, add a bread slice on top, and then add a dollop of the rich, creamy rarebit sauce. The Dijon adds such a note of savory that it goes perfectly with the sweetness of the onions and beef.

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Eat with happiness in your heart, instead of the ice splinter that pierced Kay and caused him to drag Gerda all over the ice-covered world. However, like all good fairy tales, they lived happily ever after. As will you once you eat this soul-warming soup. Yum!

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