Strange Highways: The Black Pumpkin by Dean Koontz

October is such a great month, isn’t it? The brutal heat of summer is over and the crispness of autumn is upon us, we’re getting ready for the holiday season, and it all kicks off with the creepy fun of Halloween. Being a former Goth chick, I still have a fondness in my heart for all things dark and eerie, and that includes literature. Each October, I blog all month long books that fall easily into the horror/supernatural genre and we’re continuing that fine family tradition by starting this month’s blog posts off with an anthology of short stories by my second-favorite horror writer of all time, Dean Koontz. (Yes, Stephen King is my numero uno when it comes to authors who write horror and I’m sure that surprises no one.)

The thing about Dean Koontz is that he writes in such a lyrical way about both the beauty and horror of the world. His characterizations are always fascinating, though he does tend to have fairly black-and-white characters, something I’ve seen more of over the years even as his writing has evolved. I don’t mind that, and in fact, it can be refreshing to have those clearly delineated lines of good vs. evil sharply drawn out, though occasionally Koontz’s characters can come across as almost a parody of whichever side they’re on. This is definitely the case in the short story that’s the focus of today’s post.

The Black Pumpkin is the second short story in the collection titled Strange Highways. I actually considered blogging the eponymous first story of the collection, which is itself a strange, dreamlike story of second chances, the terror we sometimes find only within our families, and the left-hand path- and I highly recommend it because it’s genuinely creepy and tense – but I opted instead to go with The Black Pumpkin because it has such a darkly humorous ending and I can’t resist a little giggle of amusement to enhance the flavor of fear.

The tale is short, a mere 19 pages long, and tells the story of Tommy Sutzmann, a young boy trapped in a family of liars, bullies and asshats. He is the lone decent individual, contrasting with his nasty older brother Frank, and his two politician parents. Well, with politicians for parents, are you surprised? Anyway, the parents take the two boys to a pumpkin patch to pick pumpkins to decorate for an upcoming Halloween party. Tommy is drawn to a particularly gruesomely carved black pumpkin, and the very scary pumpkin carver lets him have it for whatever he thinks it’s worth. Tommy’s brother rudely gives the man a nickel for it when Tommy refuses to buy it, but then the scary old man warns that the black pumpkin always gives what is deserved to those who earn it. I’m sure you can guess the rest when the pumpkin comes to life on Halloween night. We’ve got mayhem, murder, and a hilarious final couple of lines when Tommy tells the black pumpkin, after he’s eaten Tommy’s parents and brother:

“You missed a bit,” and pointed to the floor beside his brother’s nightstand. The beast looked at Frank’s severed hand. “Ahhh,” said The Black Pumpkin, snatching up the hand and stuffing that grisly morsel into its mouth.

Yes, I was inspired to create a culinary treat by a gruesome tale of a murderous pumpkin coming to life and going on a killing spree. I know, I know, I’ve been told about this twisted side of myself many times over, and you know what? It’s not going away! 🙂 Pumpkin is, of course, the ultimate symbol of this time of year, representing as it does the changing of the season, the colors of autumn leaves, and is the precursor to jack-o-lanterns that dot our neighborhood houses on All Hallow’s Eve. So I was inspired to make this fall-themed savory pumpkin casserole. Yum!

INGREDIENTS
2 cups wild rice, cooked in chicken stock
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, poached or roasted
Large handful of fresh sage leaves
2 cups of pumpkin puree
2 generous tablespoons of garlic powder
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
1 cup goat cheese
Salt and pepper
1 cup Italian-style breadcrumbs

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F. Cut the cooked chicken into chunks and season with salt and pepper.

Slice the sage into thin ribbons.

Add the pumpkin puree to the chicken, and mix in the garlic, the sage, the Parmesan and the goat cheese.

Mix well and taste for seasoning before adding any more salt and pepper.

Mix the wild rice with the chicken and pumpkin mixture, then put into a glass baking dish. Top with the bread crumbs and the few remaining bits of goat cheese, then bake for 45 minutes.

Delicious! Rich yet delicate, with the sharpness of the cheese contrasting beautifully with the mellow sage, the savory chicken and the sweet pumpkin. A perfect Halloween meal, with hopes that The Black Pumpkin doesn’t come knocking on your door tonight!

Food in Films – The Godfather Part III

I don’t even want to hear it, you Godfather III haters. I happen to think this film is an underrated masterpiece. No, it doesn’t come close to the jewels that are the first two Godfather films, but to me, The Godfather Part III it has a dark beauty and pain that makes it its own work of art.

I’m on a Godfather kick lately, probably because of the change of season. Something about the dark, cold winter makes me want to snuggle in and watch The Godfather trilogy. I think it has something to do with the colors of the films. The shades and hues are deeper, richer, more jewel-like in tone and the underlying sense of darkness in all three films goes well with the darkness of this season.

Also, I just think Andy Garcia’s performance in this film is stunning. He is the perfect embodiment of the new Don and it doesn’t hurt that he is one mighty fine piece of eye candy. I actually liked his character, Vincent Mancini, the illegitimate son of Sonny Corleone, better than any other in this film. He is cold, ruthless, has no problem in killing his enemies to get them out of his hair, and yet, has a soft and romantic side that you see when he falls in love with Michael’s daughter Mary (and his cousin – yikes!) and takes her under his protection.

Another reason why I also love this film is the theme of possible redemption and ultimate paying the price for the choices made in life. That is, after all, the place Michael Corleone has come to in this film. He is older, has worked to take his family out of crime and become respectable, and in the opening scenes, has just received a medal of honor and honorary title from the Pope himself. Kay, his former wife, has remarried and stays far away from him, and he’s been estranged from his children for many years. At the party celebrating his Papal honor, you see Kay, his children, his sister Connie and many other family come together to celebrate, in scenes very reminiscent of the opening of the first film when Connie gets married. Vincent and his mother Lucy Mancini – remember the scene in the first film when Sonny is banging the bridesmaid upstairs? – yup, Vincent is the result! Anyway, he’s a real tough guy, has his own criminal career on the upswing and is drop-dead gorgeous. Mary sees him and it’s love at first sight.

The film trajectory follows Michael as he tries in his own way, to make amends with his children, reconcile with Kay and, once and for all extract his family from the Mafia that controls most gambling, casinos, drugs, prostitution and other such activities. Needless to say, he doesn’t succeed. After an attempted assassination in Atlantic City where all the old-school Mafia dons are killed by an upstart Mafioso called Joey Zaza (played with a stylishly stupid menace by the wonderful Joe Mantegna), Michael reflects on the difficulty of changing his life, saying before he collapses into a diabetic coma, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Pretty much sums up The Godfather’s life.

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Anyway, I personally loved the romance between Mary and Vincent. I highly doubt they are the only cousins ever to fall in love and have an affair, and in my opinion, it’s handled with tact and delicacy, because Vincent so clearly wants to protect her above all else. He loves her and is attracted to her, it’s obvious, but the protective side of him is what I found lovely and sweet. When she comes to his apartment after the attempt on her father’s life and he teaches her to make gnocchi, it was romantic and soooooooo sexy.

I sometimes wonder if this particular scene was one of the reasons I so wanted to learn to cook, in the hopes that someday I would reenact this scene with someone. Without removing any clothes or showing any nudity, that scene left no doubt that these two were going to burn the place down with their passion. So of course I had to make gnocchi!

Gnocchi, if you don’t already know this, are little dumplings seasoned with salt. Simple to make, and this method adds the flavorful twist of pumpkin, sage, butter, garlic, and ricotta cheese to create these little bundles of deliciousness.

INGREDIENTS
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
Pinch of sea salt
Good grinding of fresh black pepper
2 eggs
1 cup flour, plus lots more for dusting
4 tablespoons salted butter
Large bunch of fresh sage leaves
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Combine the ricotta cheese, the pumpkin, the garlic, the eggs, the pepper and the salt in a large bowl and mix well to combine.

Add in the flour and stir until just mixed. It’s supposed to be sticky but still workable so just go by feel.

Flour a surface or a rolling board very well, place the sticky dough on the floured surface and flour the top of the dough.

Cut the dough into quarters, then roll each quarter into a long rope shape.

Cut 1-inch dumplings from each dough rope, and using a fork, press the tines into each dumpling to give it the classic shape. The tine marks also help sauce adhere to the gnocchi dumpling. I was fortunate to have help today in the form of my friend Tina and her grandson Michael, who helped with the kneading, rolling and fork-tining. It was great fun!

Lay the dumplings on a baking tray and chill for at least an hour, if not more. When you’re ready to cook them in the butter-sage sauce, you want them to be cold so they retain their shape.

Heat a large potful of salted water and boil 6 gnocchi until they float, the remove and repeat until all the gnocchi are cooked.

Melt the butter and oil in a large skillet until it starts to sizzle. Fry 6-7 cooked gnocchi until they brown nicely on either side, and again, repeat until all the gnocchi are fried.

Add the sage leaves and fry until crisp, roughly 20-30 seconds. Don’t let them burn. Remove and set aside.

Pour the butter-sage sauce over the gnocchi and sprinkle over a generous handful of the Parmesan cheese.

A wonderful dish! Warming, hearty and the flavor of pumpkin goes deliciously with the sage and Parmesan. My gnocchi were a bit stodgy, but I imagine with practice, that will improve. A keeper……..if only Vincent Corleone were the one showing me how to roll out the gnocchi, I’ve no doubt they’d be perfect. Or burned. 🙂

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Thanks to TB for the photography.

For some reason, the Harry Potter books always evoke Christmas and the winter holidays, no matter what time of year I read them in or what time of year is represented in the books.

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I suppose it’s because these books, ostensibly for kids, are also a wonderful read for adults. They transport you into this magical world of wizards, wands, spells, Sorting Hats, magicians, and yet are still so based in the reality of a kid’s everyday life. The first book of the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, is as talented in describing magical spells, Quidditch, fantastic beasts and an otherwise enchanted world, as it is the realities we all went through on the first day of school, making new friends, learning new subjects, dealing with family difficulties. We can all relate, and it’s this sense of magic combined with the poignant sense of familiar that make J.K. Rowling’s books so successful. The movies don’t hurt, either.

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Sparky the Wonder Pug models his Christmas hat, which resembles the Sorting Hat from Hogwarts. At least, I think it does.

There is a huge amount of food in the Harry Potter books, and of a great variety. Chipolata sausages, roast chicken, trifles, butterbeer, candy with fantastical names such as Bertie Botts Every Flavor jellybeans, Acid Pops and Chocolate Frogs; black pudding, eggs and toast, roast beef, soups, fruits, nuts, desserts, ice cream, platters of vegetables………….it’s overwhelming in its excess, but I also think the variety of food discussed, in a way, is symbolic of the variety of characters in the book. Each has his or her own unique personalities and tastes, and as such, so the food represents them in a sense. Harry, who grew up in a deprived and dysfunctional family unit, savors such simple foods as roast chicken and potatoes, because he is finally allowed to eat as much as he wants.

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I do love the scene on the Hogwarts Express train when the trolley-lady offers them all sorts of goodies, including pumpkin pasties, and Harry trades one for one of Ron’s rather gross corned beef sandwiches. Pasties are like what we call an empanada here in New Mexico, and which I think are ubiquitous in every culture. Meat or vegetables or fruit or any other type of filling, enclosed in a pastry shell, making a little hand-held pie.

Ron stared as Harry brought it all back in to the compartment and tipped it onto an empty seat. “Hungry, are you?” “Starving,” said Harry, taking a large bite out of a pumpkin pasty. Ron had taken out a lumpy package and unwrapped it. There were four sandwiches inside. He pulled one of them apart and said “She always forgets I don’t like corned beef.” “Swap you for one of these,” said Harry, holding up a pasty. “Go on……….”

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Having become more and more confident in my pastry-making ability this past year, I decided pumpkin pasties with homemade pastry would be my challenge this day. Not liking sweets much, I wondered how savory pumpkin pasties, with a hint of garlic, might taste.

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As well, I recently wrote a piece for the website New Mexico Nomad about the wonderful history of the Franzoy family in Southern New Mexico and their chile company, Young Guns Produce, and as part of the article, I was a lucky duck who got to taste their chile. I was dying to incorporate it into a recipe, and started thinking about pumpkin and red chile. So although no one in Harry Potter’s world likely ever had New Mexico red chile, I combined them in this recipe. Just think of it as my contribution to multiculturalism.

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As previously noted, pasties are very similar to empanadas, so I used my Nana Jean’s empanada dough recipe, which is 2 1/2 cups of flour, a pinch of salt, a stick of cold butter cut up into cubes, an egg, 1/3 cup ice-cold water, and a spoonful of white vinegar; then you incorporate the butter into the flour and salt until it looks like rubble, and slowly add in the liquid ingredients which have been mixed together.

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If you have a Kitchen Aid, use the pastry hook to mix and it will form the dough ball for you, then wrap in plastic and refrigerate for up to 2 hours before rolling out. Super easy. The filling recipe is all mine. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
2 sugar pumpkins, roasted and cubed

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1 container Young Guns Produce red chile sauce
5 cloves of garlic
1 cup herbed goat cheese
Pastry/empanada dough
1 egg, beaten with a bit of salt

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F.

Puree the roasted pumpkin cubes by putting into a food processor and pulsing until a thick puree forms.

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Heat the red chile sauce. Grate in the garlic cloves and add salt. Taste for seasoning. Chile sauce is so much a matter of individual taste that I highly recommend you taste as you go. Some people add onions, some people put in garlic, some folks like to add beef or chicken or pork drippings to boost the flavor. Really, it’s up to you.

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Roll out the dough on a floured cutting board and cut into large circles using a coffee cup or circle-shaped cookie cutter.

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Mix the pureed pumpkin with the goat cheese, and taste. Season with salt and pepper as needed.

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Pour over the garlic-scented red chile sauce a little at a time, and mix well to incorporate.

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Put about a tablespoon of the pumpkin mixture into each dough circle.

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Dampen the edge of dough, and fold over so that you have a half-moon shape. Traditionally, you would crimp the edges to seal the pasty. However, I cannot for the life of me master the damn crimp action, so I went the easy way and used a fork.

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Brush each pumpkin pasty with some egg, and pop those bad boys into the oven.

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Bake for 15-20 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When they are golden-brown on top, and the heavenly scent of pumpkin and goat cheese and the sunny smell of red chile waft through the kitchen, take the pasties out of the oven and allow to cool.

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I have to say, these are probably my proudest creation. They tie in with my own New Mexico culture, they are a nod to my grandmother’s baking techniques, yet they incorporate a more modern flavor combination, and best of all, they tie in with the magical world of Harry Potter and Christmas. Plus, they are damn delicious!