Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

If you’ve followed my blog long enough, you’ll be familiar with my great disdain for “chick lit,” not because I think literature by women for women is bad but because so much of it is terribly written, horribly edited, dumbed down, and the topic of true love is often written about in such a sappy-ass manner, or it’s totally clichéd. I can’t stand clichés, in literature or in life. However, I would deem Cinnamon and Gunpowder as a type of “chick lit” except it was written by a man. So if you can imagine a clichéd story about a female pirate on the high seas who kidnaps a male chef and makes him cook a gourmet meal for her once a week as a way to earn his freedom, I’d say, yes it has the makings of a cheesy-ass Harlequin romance novel.

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But I’d be wrong. This book is so wonderfully and well-written, so descriptive of life at sea, and written with such dry wit, and best of all, it takes what could be considered a boring literary trope – a pirate kidnapping someone and taking them on the high seas on a quest – and turns it into a feminist manifesto of a sort. And you gotta love a good female pirate, right? There are actually some female pirates in history – Grace O’Malley being the one that comes immediately to mind. 

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Mad Hannah Mabbott – and seriously, how could she be anything but a pirate with a moniker like that? – is the captain of The Flying Rose, and committed to righting the wrongs done by Lord Ramsey and his British colonial Pendleton Trading Company. Owen Wedgwood is chef to Lord Ramsey and in the process of serving a delectable gourmet meal to Ramsey and his assorted, equally aristocratic and horrible British guests, Hannah swoops in with her motley crew, kills the men, and kidnaps Owen. Owen is taken to sea initially as a lark and to cook for Hannah, who tells him he must cook her a gourmet meal once a week. The fact that he has limited foodstuffs, nearly no equipment and must cook on a swaying sea vessel has little effect on her. I think I would lose my damn mind if I were taken hostage on a pirate ship and told to cook with next to nothing, but if the pirate captain was tall, dark and handsome and I had to cook for him, I suppose I could force myself to make the effort. 🙂

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As you can no doubt guess, eventually Owen falls under the sway of Hannah’s magic, not because she is trying to entice him sexually, as you’d likely find in a chick-lit book, but because she is truly a strong woman who has grown up in a whorehouse and been sold to many  men before she gains her own independence on the high seas, because she is kind and caring in her own tough way, and because she is the mother to The Fox, another pirate who is fairly insane in his own way and her mothering instincts are what finally break down Owen’s defenses. Owen resists until nearly the end, making three ill-advised attempts to escape the ship, each funnier than the next, until one such evening he serves her his latest concoction, he notices her beauty and the fact that she is a bit curvier than usual due to his culinary skills, and realizes he is a goner.

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Being a foodie, reading the descriptions of Owen’s attempts to cook gourmet meals on a ship with few ingredients was delightful! Owen nourishes a homemade yeast starter by keeping it next to his heart and feeds it with varying liquids to keep it active. He smokes eels in tea, is able to make a herring pâté, creates vanilla-scented amaretto cookies, brews his own banana ale, rolls out homemade ravioli, braises pigeon, attempts a delectable-sounding chocolate mole flavored with soy sauce, and my own personal favorite, concocts potato-crusted crab cakes, the description of which made my mouth water.

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The last of the potatoes went into the crab croquettes. After grating and salting the tubers, I squeezed out as much water as I could and put the liquid aside to settle out. In half an hour, the starch had precipitated. I poured off the water and stirred the starch back into the potatoes (such are the humble measures of an eggless world) along with the virginal crab meat, black pepper, and dried cilantro, and set them aside for frying.

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Luckily for me, I don’t live in an eggless world, so making potato crab cakes was for me, a walk in the park.

INGREDIENTS
1 large egg, room temperature
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons Worchestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Sprinkle of sea salt
8 ounces fresh lump crab meat
1 cup mashed potatoes (I just boiled and mashed two russets and added salt and butter)

1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
Butter

METHOD
In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, mayonnaise, parsley, cilantro, Dijon mustard, Worchestershire sauce, Old Bay, lemon juice and salt.

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Gently mix in the crab meat and the mashed potatoes and form small cakes with your hands, then cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

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Preheat the oven to 450F and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Dredge each cake in breadcrumbs and dab the top of each crab cake with a small bit of butter before placing on the baking tray.

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Bake for 17 minutes or until light golden brown, and the smell of the crab and butter tortures you.

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Serve with a wasabi-lemon mayonnaise and dive in! So delicious, rich yet light, with the hint of the far-off sea and the zest of lemon. Wonderful! I feel certain I would not be drawn and quartered by a pirate queen for these.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Underrated by Josh Abraham

I don’t normally read a lot of non-fiction, mainly because I read to escape reality……particularly these days, when the world around us seems to be going insane. But having discovered this pop culture gem, Underrated, while waiting at my dentist’s office, I changed my mind. Slightly.

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Josh Abraham takes some of the most classic pundits of modern culture that everyone loves to hate – Good Times, Jay Mohr, diet Dr. Pepper, The Godfather III (and for that, I thank him heartily because I happen to think that movie was pretty all right – save the hate mail, please), and that classic American slab of comfort food known as meatloaf. And what could be more underrated than meatloaf?

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I go back to my original statement about The Godfather III. HELLO! It’s still an amazing film. It’s Coppola, for God’s sake. He could film someone reading the history of ground beef and it would be amazing.  Abraham details why this film should not be given short shrift – for all the reasons I always thought! Lack of quotable lines combined with none of the old-school characters combined with Sofia Coppola…….who, IMHO, was not that bad, and thank God she wasn’t that great because then we wouldn’t have her directorial awesomeness in Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides, or Marie Antoinette.

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But the piece on meatloaf is what got me thinking. Goddammit, I LOVE meatloaf! It’s classic American fodder food and seriously, if you screw up meatloaf, you are beyond help.  Anyway, my deeply buried love for meatloaf reasserted itself after reading this book, and I decided that a nice loaf would be the perfect blog post. If you don’t like meatloaf, well, go order a pizza, then.

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Ok, so meatloaf isn’t the most exciting of dishes. It’s also perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing of foods, either. But this version, perfected after many variations and experiments, is really, really good. The key is using half pork sausage, which adds more flavor and keeps the ingredients moist, even after baking. Trust me!

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
7 baby carrots
1 celery stalk
1 red onion
6 cloves garlic
Tablespoon each of fresh thyme, fresh parsley and fresh oregano
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork sausage
3 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
2 eggs
1 heaping cup of Panko breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
Teaspoon mustard
4 tablespoons tomato sauce

METHOD

Heat the oven to 375F. Melt the butter and olive oil in a large pan over medium heat on the stove. Finely chop the carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and fresh herbs and add to the pan. Saute for 10-12 minutes.

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In a separate bowl, add the two ground meats, the eggs and the Worchestershire sauce.

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Pour over the breadcrumbs.

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Let the vegetable mixture cool in the freezer for 15 minutes, then add to the eggs, breadcrumbs and meats.

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Add the mustard and the tomato sauce to the mixture, and then mix everything together well, using your VERY clean hands. Pat into a loaf tin.

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Bake for an hour. Let cool. Cram down your throat. It’s that good –  and totally underrated! If you want to go full-on retro, serve with peas and macaroni and cheese, the old-school kind from the box. Good stuff!

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Thanks to KRB for the photography.

The title was the hook for me with this book, not to mention the book cover. Yes, in this case, I did indeed judge the book by its cover, and I was pleasantly surprised. Though nominally a book for young adults, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a wonderful read, and I found the narrator, 17-year-old Jacob who’s at a crossroads in his life, to be funny and mature.

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One of the great joys of reading this book was seeing the eerie and unusual pictures that illustrate it. These photos are real, but show people doing the most odd things and often, give the impression of the supernatural. Yet they go so perfectly with the storyline. I normally don’t like books with pictures, other than cookbooks. But this book would not be what it is without the strange, sometimes frightening photographs that add such personality to it. It’s a perfect Halloween read!

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The book’s premise is a bit peculiar, pardon the pun. Jacob is an otherwise normal teenager, closer to his grandfather Abe than his parents, and one night finds his grandfather dying, murdered by some ghastly creature. Abe passes along some strange knowledge to Jacob, which prompts a trip to Wales to find someone named Miss Peregrine, a woman who took in Jacob’s grandfather when he was young, during World War II. What Jacob finds on the island where Miss Peregrine has a home for peculiar children is indeed odd, but funny, sad, and amazing at the same time. The peculiar children are just that, all blessed with odd talents or powers that make them “peculiar.” One is invisible, one can make inanimate objects come to life, one can levitate at will, one can set things afire with her hands, and one very peculiar child has a mouth on the back of her neck through which she eats. As Jacob arrives at Miss Peregrine’s house just in time for the evening meal, he gets to witness this odd eating habit, and the veritable feast of fresh fish and seafood, including salmon, firsthand.

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Kids with kitchen duty appeared bearing trays of food, all covered with gleaming silver tops…….sparking wild speculation about what might be for dinner. “Otters Wellington!” one boy cried. “Salted kitten and shrew’s liver!” another said, to which the younger children responded with gagging sounds. But when the covers were finally lifted, a feast of kingly proportions was revealed: a roasted goose, its flesh a perfect golden brown, a whole salmon and a whole cod, each outfitted with lemons and fresh dill and pats of melting butter………platters of roasted vegetables……….”

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So I decided to give salmon a whirl. It’s the one thing that I have always screwed up in cooking, but this method from the blog Damn Delicious looked delicious, and seemed simple enough. As I was cooking in honor of my sister Krista’s birthday and having her, my grandmother Leandra, my aunt Eva and one of my best friends Tina over for lunch, and the Birthday Queen requested salmon (along with a few other goodies), I combined this family celebration with today’s blog post and it’s one of my favorites.

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This is the cooking method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
8 salmon fillets, boneless and skinless
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1 cup pecans
1/2 cup of shaved Parmesan cheese
Handful of fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 tablespoon cornstarch

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 275F.

In a food processor, combine the Panko, the pecans, the parsley, and the Parmesan, until everything breaks down and you have a rough, nubbly texture. Like this.

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Rub a generous amount of butter on each side of each salmon fillet.2016-10-23-20-23-00_resized

Dredge each salmon fillet in the Panko/pecan/parsley/Parmesan mixture, again on both sides, pressing the coating in well with your hands. Heat a large grill pan over medium high heat. Liberally spray the grill pan with olive oil spray. Sear 2 salmon fillets at a time for 1 minute per side. Work in batches so the salmon doesn’t get greasy.

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Lay the nut-crusted salmon fillets on a foil-covered cookie tray. Bake for 6-7 minutes and check for doneness. The idea here is that the fish will continue baking and you DO NOT want overcooked, dry salmon. It’s better to have undercooked salmon than overcooked. And if by some unhappy accident you do overcook it, just order a pizza.

While the salmon is baking, make the glaze. It’s a quasi-teriyaki-type sauce and though a bit sweet for my tastes, actually went deliciously well with the nut-crusted salmon. I think the contrast of flavors did it.

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In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the honey, soy sauce, garlic, lemon juice and cornstarch. Whisk together and bring to a boil. Once bubbling, lower the heat and let the sauce reduce and thicken. Keep an eye on it so the sugar in the honey doesn’t burn. Taste and adjust flavors as needed. I have more of a savory tooth so I added more lemon and salt but go by your own palate.

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Decant the sauce and serve with the salmon and whatever side dishes you choose. I made the salmon and glaze with creamy, buttery mashed potatoes, and roasted butternut squash with sage, pecans and blue cheese.

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And of course, it wouldn’t be a birthday celebration without a chocolate birthday cake with chocolate ganache icing. A feast fit for a birthday queen! Happy birthday to my dear sister, Krista! You bug the hell out of me most of the time, but I can’t imagine life without you. I love you!

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