Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

I’ve felt a bit burnt out with my blog writing lately, though I can’t figure out if it’s because I’ve read through most of the books I really wanted to, or just haven’t felt the yen to cook. It’s a combination of both, but I think the New Year and wintertime is so gray and depressing that it saps the energy out of me. Also, sometimes the thought of making the same old dishes is boring.

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So when my friend Corey recommended Behind Closed Doors, my initial reaction was “meh.” It’s not that it didn’t sound good, it’s just that this genre of book is not usually my first choice. Along the same lines of The Girl on The Train (which is one my earliest blog posts), Gone Girl, and the ilk – you know, those psychological thrillers that follow a fairly familiar trajectory of a unreliable female narrator who finds herself in a very twisted peril – this book was actually very intense. Just goes to show, never judge a book by its genre.

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I actually read this book in three hours because it hooked me with the first paragraph and didn’t let me go. Starting with a dinner party given by Jack and Grace, the two main characters, it introduces what looks like the ideal, perfect marriage. Jack is wealthy, successful, handsome and charming. Grace is gorgeous, beautifully dressed, maintains a flawless home and figure, and can cook like a dream. So of course you know that there is some seriously fucked-up stuff going on under the surface.

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Anytime I look at a person, a couple, a family and they come across as ‘perfect,” I automatically go on red alert. There is no such thing as perfection, so when someone posits that their life, their home, their job, their marriage, their family dynamic has little or no flaws, floats on calm seas, and in particular, when their social media shows nothing but perfection, you can bet money that there is a lot of chaos, drama, trauma and negativity under the surface.

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You find out pretty quickly just how evil Jack is, and he is a truly nasty son of a bitch, though his character isn’t really well developed because you don’t get a huge amount of background about why he turned out to be such a bastard. I wish there had been more back story for him, because like all villains, he’s a lot more entertaining. Grace is more developed, and you definitely come to understand just how insinuating Jack’s manipulations are, when you realize exactly why he has targeted her and how he goes about breaking her psychologically. TRIGGER WARNING: there is a scene of animal death, where Jack kills Grace’s dog when they arrive home after their honeymoon. If you’re like me and cannot in any way read about animal violence, be warned. I had to skip over it. It doesn’t detract from the story, and in this case, it truly showcased what a horrendous prick Jack is, so it’s not gratuitous like some books can be when they unnecessarily have scenes of torture, gore, rape and horrendous death of characters, which I absolutely hate.

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She waits until Jack has carved the beef Wellington and served it with a gratin of potatoes, and carrots lightly glazed with honey. There are also tiny sugar peas, which I plunged into boiling water just before taking the beef from the oven. Diane marvels that I’ve managed to get everything ready at the same time, and admits that she always chooses a main course like curry, which can be prepared earlier and heated through at the last minute. I’d like to tell her that I’d much rather do as she does, that painstaking calculations and sleepless nights are the currency I pay to serve such a perfect dinner. But the alternative – serving anything that isn’t perfect – isn’t an option.

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One of the many ways that Jack has come to control Grace – and by which she has subtly gained back some small control herself – is in his exactitude and precision for all things, particularly cooking.  Beef Wellington with duxelles. I’d never made Beef Wellington before and thought it sounded like an exciting challenge, so here we go! Note: I used a center cut of beef tenderloin, which is quite pricey, though I think it’s worth it to splurge once in awhile.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pints white button mushrooms
1 large shallot
7 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 two-pound center cut beef tenderloin
Olive oil, sea salt, and pepper
8-10 slices prosciutto
2-3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 pound puff pastry
Flour for rolling out the pastry
1 egg, beaten with a bit of water and sea salt

METHOD
In a food chopper or processor, pulse together the mushrooms, shallot, garlic, thyme, and tarragon, until finely minced.

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Melt the butter and olive oil in a pan, add the chopped mushroom mixture, and saute with a sprinkle of sea salt for 10-12 minutes, until most of the moisture has evaporated. Set aside to cool.

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On some plastic wrap, lay out the prosciutto, overlapping so you have a large sheet, then spread a thin layer of the cooled mushroom mixture onto the prosciutto.

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Drizzle the meat with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and sear it in a cast-iron pan on high for about 2 minutes per side, on all four sides.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. then smear the Dijon mustard on all sides of the meat.

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Place the meat on top of the mushrooms, cover tightly with the prosciutto strips, seal over the plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F and sprinkle flour on a flat surface. Roll out the puff pastry long enough so that it will completely cover the meat.

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Remove the meat from the refrigerator, cut off the plastic, and lay it in the center of the pastry. Fold over the pastry tightly until the meat is completely covered.

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Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and sprinkle over a bit more salt. Place seam-side down on a flat baking tray, cut some slits in the pastry, and bake 45 minutes, or until the internal meat temperature is 120F.

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Remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes before slicing with a serrated-edge knife and serving.

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I served mine with roasted red creamer potatoes and roasted radishes in a garlic-herb coating.

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The cut of meat is incredibly tender, so tender in fact, that we were able to cut it with a fork.  Sooooooooo delicious and decadent, a real treat for the tastebuds.

 

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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?”

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I didn’t read this book until just a few months ago, and I could kick myself for not having devoured it sooner. Such a marvelous universe, this alternate world of circuses and magic and love. It actually put me in mind of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, in that sense of whimsical magic and a slightly odd world similar to our own, but one much more unusual, spellbinding and mystical.

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Celia and Marco are the proverbial star-crossed lovers, though in this case, they are also opponents in a seemingly eternal game of spells and magic set in a mysterious circus. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been fascinated with the circus. It’s always had a dreamlike, slightly off-kilter sense to me, the striped tents, the calliope music, the death-defying feats of acrobats and contortionists swinging high above or twisting themselves into improbable shapes…..and the ringmaster himself, whip in hand. (In fact, if you’re into circuses and the unusual and/or supernatural, you’ll love the podcast The Magnus Archives, which has a very creepy and weird circus as a main storyline, so give it a listen if so inclined.)

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The circus itself appears overnight, with its attendant staff. Black and white and red are its colors, and it is the backdrop for Marco and Celia, who initially do not realize they are meant to be in opposition to each other, to perform their illusions and spells. They have been trained since they were children for the competition by their respective father figures, both of whom are total and complete bastards. Of course, they fall in love but it’s not a love that is easy nor does their path run smoothly. Well, it never does, does it?

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It’s not a romance, though the love story at its heart is pivotal for the book. With the circus called Le Cirque des Rêves – Circus of Dreams – it would be more accurate to say it’s a gorgeous, dreamlike swathe of crimson velvet words, ice clouds of images, mystical spells that turn clothing into birds, and just an overall sense of magic and mystery. Even the more minor characters are lushly described, and all play a key role in how the ultimate destiny of the circus comes about. Chandresh is one of these side characters who plays a huge part in the outcome. He hosts divine midnight dinner parties for many of the book’s magicians, bringing together the main characters in some of the most sumptuously described food passages I’ve read in ages.

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The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers. Often diners remark that they are too pretty, too impressive to eat, but they always find a way to manage.

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So the figs. Oh, the figs. A delicacy that I can only get a few times in the early autumn, I had to do something with this amazing fruit that I love so much. Not being much of a sweets eater, I thought something more savory would be delightful. Hence, prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese and glazed with a bourbon-butter sauce seemed a simple, yet delectably delicious way to enjoy this amazing fruit.

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INGREDIENTS
6 fresh figs
12 slices prosciutto
1 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup bourbon whiskey
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Sea salt for sprinkling

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Slice each fig in half lengthwise, to make 12 fig halves.

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Using a melon baller, scoop out some of the fig.

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Stuff each fig opening with a teaspoon of blue cheese.

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Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each stuffed little fig.

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Repeat with the other figs, and lay out on a baking tray.

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Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the prosciutto crisps and you can smell the mingled scents of sweet fig, salty prosciutto. and and savory cheese oozing together.

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While the figs are baking, melt the butter and brown sugar and add the bourbon. Cook on high and make a reduction of thick, luscious brown syrup.

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Remove figs from oven, and gently pour the bourbon syrup over them, and sprinkle over some sea salt. Allow to cool, and cram down your throat. You could say they’re magically delicious!

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