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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Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

In memory of my beloved grandfather Tito Baca, who lived his life to the fullest. Just like Zorba.

Zorba the Greek is a man well known to me. This book, as well as the movie, was something I read as a teenager, not really “getting” it, but when I came across a used edition in a bookstore, I remembered reading it and comparing the boisterous Zorba and his love of food, dancing, music, women, wine and life to my grandfather, Tito, who was very much the same.

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The book is narrated by the unnamed financier of a lignite mine who meets Zorba as they travel together to oversee the mining operation and meet the working-class men who labor there. It’s really a study in contrasts. The financier is a rather repressed man, focused on work and profits and the details of life. Zorba, on the other hand, loves to sing and dance and drink and eat and make love to women. These two men are able to forge a friendship and share each of their unique personalities with the other, opening up to seeing the world in a different way.

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I think what I took away from the book, rereading it this time around, is the importance of living life to the fullest. Don’t just sit on the sidelines and watch everyone else. Get up and dance! Eat the food you love! Drink the wine you enjoy! Celebrate all that live has to offer. If you love someone, tell them. Don’t let fear or apathy or worry about other’s opinions keep you from doing what makes you happy.

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This is not to say Zorba is a saint, because he’s not. He has decided macho tendencies, though he loves women, but in the sense that he desires them physically. He loves the soft curves of women, the floral scent of their hair and skin, their cooking, their lovemaking……..but he is as much a heartbreaker as he is a lover.

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Zorba is a man of appetites, including food. The descriptions of the luscious seafood and Greek cuisine in this book are truly mouthwatering and make me wish I lived closer to the sea. This description of a beach celebration during Lent was particularly mouth-watering.

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We returned to our hut, where Zorba treated everyone to wine and Lenten hors d’oeuvres: octopus, squid, stewed beans, olives.

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In my interpretation of this luscious sentence, I decided to make a Greek seafood stew with octopus, squid, shrimp, mussels and clams, with some olives thrown in. Opa!

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Recipe courtesy of the amazing Greek food blogger Diane Kochilas, with (of course) a few flavoring tweaks by moi.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb. medium-sized squid
1 lb. shrimp
1 lb. mixed seafood – I used clams, mussels, and octopus
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 14-oz. cans chopped tomatoes
5-6 fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup anise liqueur – I used Pernod
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
3 bay leaves
12 Greek olives, pitted and sliced in half
1 cup feta cheese, for sprinkling
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Start the tomato broth up to two hours prior to cooking the seafood, so that the flavors meld. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat, and add the onion and garlic. Stir and cook for about 10 minutes.

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Add the tomatoes, wine, anise liqueur, herbs, bay leaves, and a splash of fish stock if you have it. If not, use tomato bouillon in addition to the canned tomatoes. Simmer, stirring occasionally and tasting for seasoning, for two hours.

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Allow the seafood to thaw for up to an hour before cooking. Cut up the squid into rings, and remove the shrimp tails.

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Add the squid, the shrimp, and the other seafood to the tomato sauce, and stir in the olives. Simmer another 10-15 minutes.

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Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if so desired. Simmer all together for 10 minutes and serve with good, crusty bread and some strong red wine. You can garnish with some sprinkled feta crumbles if you like, which adds such a nice saltiness to the briny seafood. The oregano and olives also make this dish quintessentially Mediterranean and you can almost imagine Zorba dancing with glee before devouring his bowl of deliciousness from the sea.

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Voyager by Diana Gabaldon (Outlander Series)

So I won’t bore you with my gushing adoration for the books of Diana Gabaldon. If you’re a book lover, a lover of history, a lover of epic love stories, a lover of time travel, or if you watch STARZ, you’ve probably heard of the Outlander series by this marvelous writer, and hopefully, you also think it’s the shizzle. I know I do.

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For those few people who might not have heard of either the books or the TV series, the premise is simple: a woman travels through time, meets the love of her life 200 years in the past, and forever alters her past, present, and future. It’s a much more detailed, ornate and intricate story, however, involving British, French and American history, the battle for Scottish independence and the devastation of the Battle of Culloden Moor, a whiff of the supernatural, a hint of sci-fi, and probably one of the most beautiful, complex and mature love stories ever written about in literature. Gabaldon clearly understands the convoluted pathways of the human heart, and expresses them in all their lovely, ugly glory in the 8-book series. The TV series, though great, falls short in details, and was extremely dark and at times, unbearable to watch. But I still watched the Season 2 premier!

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Mentions of food and drink are quite plentiful throughout the entire book series, with such wonders as a rabbit-and-pigeon pie, soused pig’s face, wild turkey with chestnuts and truffles, sangria drunk with a pot-smoking priest, a chocolate cake with walnuts (shell bits and all) for your biting pleasure, something dreadful-sounding called parritch, which is some sort of nasty porridge eaten in Scotland, and one of my favorite food scenes in any book, when Louis XV invites Jamie and Claire to an ornate luncheon at Versailles Palace and a baroque display of stuffed baby quails, roasted in their original shape, bones and all, are presented to the king, a sort of kingly four-and-twenty-blackbirds-baked-into-a-pie. Claire watches in bemused fascination as the king pops one of the little blackened birds into his mouth, chews, and swallows. She then excuses herself to vomit profusely in the gardens. Go, quail!

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I’ve started re-reading the whole series from the beginning, as much to prepare myself for the second season of TV series, as to lose myself again in this marvelous world. Reading this series is a sheer, sensual pleasure of the mind and the heart. I’m on the third book, Voyager, and in honor of the second series premier tonight, I decided to recreate the peppery, creamy oyster stew Jamie and Claire share after their first night together in a very long time, where we find Claire remembering some very seductive and erotic moments from the night before.

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My breath coming a little short, I bent my head to my oyster stew. Jamie appeared not to have noticed; he added a large pat of butter to his bowl, shaking his head as he did so. “Sawney’s what they say in the Highlands,” he informed me. ‘And in the Isles, too. Sandy’s more what ye’d hear in the Lowlands – or from an ignorant Sassenach.” He lifted one eyebrow at me, smiling, and raised a spoonful of the rich, fragrant stew to his mouth.

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This is the method that worked for me, tweaked from Buddy Sizemore’s 5-star recipe on Allrecipes.com, with of course, some added touches of my own.

INGREDIENTS

3 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of cayenne pepper
15-20 oysters, shucked, and the liquid they come in. You can also use canned if that’s all you can find, but save the oyster liquid either way.
2 ribs celery, finely diced

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2 shallots, finely diced or minced
4 bay leaves, fresh if possible but dried is also fine
1 cup half-and-half cream or whole milk
1/2 cup of Pernod liqueur (my touch as I had a bottle from a previous blog post)
2 little red potatoes, peeled and cubed into smallish pieces

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1 cup of chicken stock or fish stock if you have it
Chicken stock cube

METHOD

Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and saute the celery, shallot and garlic along with the cayenne, salt and pepper. When they have softened and are somewhat translucent, add the Pernod, the chicken stock, the chicken stock cube, and the fresh bay leaves.

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Then add the diced potato and cook until the potato chunks are very soft and easy to mash with a wooden spoon. Between 20-30 minutes cooking time should do it. When the potatoes are soft, mash them against the side of the pot so that they thicken the broth. Add the oyster liquid and the half-and-half, and taste. I warn you, the scent of the broth is heady, with the oyster liquor mingling with the butter and the anise perfume of the Pernod. It’s amazing how good it smells. Even if you’re not a fan of licorice, please try adding the Pernod if you have it. It completely transforms the stew.

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Stir together again and allow to gently simmer for 10 minutes, so the flavors mingle and combine. Lower the heat and add the oysters.

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You’re looking for the edges of the oysters to curl up, which is when they’re cooked, so approximately 5 minutes. Keep an eye on it and continue stirring, so the cream doesn’t curdle and the oysters don’t overcook.

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I have to say that this is one of the best things I’ve made yet. It’s rich, unctuous, and tastes so fresh and luscious. You may want to taste for any last-minute seasoning, though I found it didn’t need anything. It was delish! Serve in bowls with oyster crackers or some good, crusty bread and a glass of wine, or if you’re truly into Scots mode, a large dram of whisky. Slainte!

“I want him.” I had not said that to Jamie at our marriage; I had not wanted him, then. But I had said it since, three times; in two moments of choice at Craigh na Dun, and once again at Lallybroch. “I want him.” I wanted him still, and nothing whatever could stand between us.

Madeleine’s Ghost by Robert Girardi

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read this book. My sister even comments when I tell her I’m reading it again, and she never comments on my books. “What? Madeleine’s Ghost AGAIN? Haven’t you read it like a billion times?” Not quite.

I just love this novel. It hits me in the heart every time, and reminds me that the world we live in is full of infinite mystery and ultimately, love. I relate very well to the main character, having spent 10 years of my life pining for and loving someone whom I have not been able to forget. That love has colored my life forever. It’s possible to love someone always, even if they aren’t with you or even when they are not the best person for you, to realize that their presence in your soul is permanent, and that, in many ways, they’ve helped to make you the person you are today. That’s certainly true for me.20160206_161547_resized

Part of why I love this book is that most of it is set in New Orleans, one of my absolute favorite cities in the world, and particularly appropriate now. The main character, Ned, spends his formative early 20s there at Loyola, and falls in love with Antoinette, a wealthy Creole whose family has the proverbial Garden District mansion. The path to true love never runs smoothly, though, and theirs is no exception. Ned moves away to New York City, where he tries to start over with new friends, a new job, and a new apartment – one that happens to be haunted by a ghost. But there is another spirit waiting to communicate with Ned, and his life is soon taken over with finding out who these apparitions truly are.

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The book is filled with some of my favorite things: forbidden love, the New Orleans French Quarter, ghostly apparitions, and delicious descriptions of food. Oysters eaten raw, sucking the heads of crawdads, a Sunday barbecue of marinated chicken, a pre-seance meal of broccoli and mussel salad, lemongrass soup and Chicken Jakarta, a weekday afternoon sipping Abita beer, and of course, drinking in the French Quarter. One of my favorite scenes is the excellent passage when Antoinette takes Ned to a French Quarter bar and he drinks a made-from-scratch Sazerac cocktail for the first time. And what’s a book set in New Orleans without at least one French Quarter drinking scene?New-Orleans-Bourbon-St-H

“When Henri brought the drinks, I tasted the Sazerac and it ran like fire down my throat. ‘Damn,’ I said, ‘this is one hell of a drink.’ He smiled, pleased, and went away. ‘Henri used to be head bartender here till they figured he got too old,’ Antoinette said. ‘But he’s one of the few can still make a Sazerac from scratch. You know, absinthe, bourbon, sweet vermouth, sugar, bitters. The secret is you take the absinthe, swirl it around the glass,and throw it out, then add the other stuff. That’s the secret. Of course, you can’t get absinthe anymore. Pernod’s a decent substitute.”

In honor of Mardi Gras, coming up on Tuesday, I decided to try my hand at reproducing the Sazerac cocktail as described in this Big Easy-flavored novel. Cocktail experts, mixologists, historians and purists all have a variation of this recipe. Some use rye whiskey, some use cognac, some use a combination of those liquors, some use bourbon. I like the sweeter tang of Kentucky bourbon, so that’s what I used. If you don’t like anise, you probably won’t like this drink as the Pernod flavor does come through. It pains me to admit, but I really didn’t like this cocktail. I’m glad I made it, but I wouldn’t drink it again, at least, not in this iteration. Maybe my palate isn’t sophisticated enough? Maybe I should have used rye whiskey?

This is the method that worked for me. I also, of course, had to cook something New Orleans in mood and flavor to soak up the booze, so take a gander at my shrimp Creole (recipe found here) IMG_20160206_204320_resized

and miniature King cakes, complete with babies and fleurs-de-lys. No beads, though.

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Ingredients

1 highball glass, chilled if possible
Absinthe or Pernod (I used Pernod here.)
Rye whiskey, bourbon or cognac of your choice. I used Maker’s Mark, and yes, I know the purists would sneer. But bourbon is what is mentioned in the book, so in the spirit of following it, I used Maker’s Mark.
4-5 dashes Peychauds Bitters
Teaspoon full of sugar, dissolved in a teensy bit of water.
Lemon peel

Method

Pour a shot of Pernod into your highball glass and swirl it around. Empty it but don’t rinse the glass. You want that hint of perfumed anise.

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Add about two shots of bourbon, your melted sugar, your bitters, and ice into a separate glass. 20160206_161537_resized

Stir gently, and strain into your highball glass. DON’T shake the cocktail, as this will make it cloudy.

20160206_161820_resizedTake a slice of lemon peel and rub it around the rim of the highball glass, then twist it so that the lemon oils are released into the glass.

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Take a whiff and pretend you’re walking down Bourbon Street being offered beads. Then, sip it while you turn your attention to decorating your miniature king cakes, cooking shrimp Creole and contemplating life in The Big Easy.

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But beware. This drink will knock you on your ass but quick.