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 Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Probably one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something, because I love ghost stories. The Haunting of Hill House is effective because it doesn’t actually show any ghosts, there are no murderers chasing anyone, no demons possessing souls, no vampires sucking blood, no monsters under the bed. There is just the house, which both epitomizes and contains what we should call pure evil.

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I remember reading this book one very hot summer when I was in my early 20s, sitting outside on a shaded patio while the sun blazed overhead. Not a remotely scary environment in which to read a ghost story, and yet I was totally freaked out reading this book. Every noise made me jump, every shadow in my peripheral vision seemed threatening, and I ended up sleeping with the lamp on that night.

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What’s interesting in this book is the house itself is a character. It has as many characteristics as the four people who come to stay in it for a week, studying the supernatural environment Hill House is known for and hoping to evoke otherwordly occurrences. Boy, do they!  The main character, Eleanor, around whom the novel revolves, is probably one of the more irritating characters in literature. She’s an interesting character study if you can get past her annoyingness, though. Is she insane? Is she psychic? Is everyone in the house having a collective supernatural hallucination? Is Eleanor as alienated as she feels, or is she just super self-centered? My God, I wanted to smack her at times! Perhaps readers are supposed to feel sorry for her, yet when she took off up that spiral staircase and made everyone chase her, I found myself snapping at her  “Pull your head out of your ass, woman!”

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Early in the book, as Eleanor makes her way toward Hill House and her fate, she loses herself in imaginings about what her life will be like going forward. She passes a lovely house in a town with stone lions outside, and daydreams of her life there, being waited upon and  served meals.

A little dainty old lady took care of me, moving starchily with a silver tea service on a tray and bringing me a glass of elderberry wine each evening for my health’s sake. I took my dinner alone in the long, quiet dining room at the gleaming table……..I dined upon a bird, and radishes from the garden, and homemade plum jam.

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I wanted to recreate this simple-sounding meal in my own style, but I wasn’t about to go full-on Martha Stewart and make my own plum jam. So I did a little research and found this recipe for roasted chicken with plums, which is Persian in origin with the sumac seasoning, and that sounded marvelous. I added a few of my own touches,using chicken thighs instead of a whole bird, roasting and caramelizing lemons with the plums, and because I am all about roasting vegetables, alongside the chicken I served sliced radishes seasoned with olive oil, garlic and lemon zest.

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
For the chicken:
12 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
2 lemons , quartered
2 tablespoons ground sumac, found at Middle Eastern groceries or click here
2 tablespoons ground allspice
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
Zest of 1 whole lemon
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Sea salt and ground black pepper
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup fruity wine, red or white. I actually used a rose wine.

For the plums:
2 red or black plums, cut into chunks
2 shallots, finely diced
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Olive oil
Sea salt and ground black pepper

METHOD

Make sure your birds are at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Lay your chicken thighs skin-side up in a large roasting pan. Mix the sumac, allspice, cinnamon, lemon zest, minced garlic salt and pepper together in a bowl, add the olive oil and pour this over the chicken. Add the lemon, pour over the wine, cover and cook for 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Chop up the plums into rough chunks and mix with the sliced shallots, cinnamon, allspice, salt, pepper, the honey, and olive oil. Mix together and let the flavors combine.

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Add the plums to the chicken during the last 30 minutes  of cooking at 350F, and leave them in when you increase the heat and bronze the thighs at 450F.

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Remove the foil from the chicken, turn up the oven to 450F, and cook for another 30 minutes so the bird pieces get bronze and the skin crisps up. When you remove the chicken for the last time to cool before serving, give a final stir so that cooked plums mingle with the flavors of the bird, the lemon, and all the spices and seasonings. Let rest, and serve with the lemon-zested roasted radishes. A marvelous dish! Exotic, subtle flavors and somewhat complex, with just a hint of the Casbah, yet familiar enough to taste comfortingly of home.

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The Scottish Prisoner by Diana Gabaldon

Thanks to Dr. H for the photography.

Lord John Grey was a major character in the Outlander series, being the warden of  Ardsmuir Prison in Scotland, where Jamie Fraser was imprisoned after Culloden. Lord John, being the fascinating character that he is, got his own spinoff series – of which today’s book is the latest – in which he serves in the British military, interacts with his equally interesting family, travels round the world on adventures both fun and heart-stopping, occasionally travels to the Lake District of England to check on his paroled prisoner Jamie, and has affairs with men.

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Yes, Lord John is a homosexual, and one of the most fascinating aspects of this series is understanding how homosexuals acted and survived within their repressive British society of the mid 1700s. Having friends and family members who are gay and knowing the difficulties they have dealt with, I can’t imagine how much more challenging it would have been to be born that way in a world and society that deemed them perverts and sinners. Well, our society still does that, at least some people do, so perhaps we haven’t come as far as we like to think.

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Lord John is quite an endearing character. He is intelligent, erudite, brave, loyal, and has a very dry wit and sense of humor. In The Scottish Prisoner, he is investigating a case of treason within the British army and is asked to bring his paroled Scots prisoner, one James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, to London to help in the investigation. The treason is related to the supposedly-dead Jacobite cause, and as Jamie was a known, and well-connected Jacobite during the Rising, his connections are believed to possibly be helpful. Then, they head to Ireland to further investigate, and that’s where the adventure really starts.

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Told from both the voices of Jamie and Lord John, what I loved about this book is seeing the same situations from their very different vantage points. They are both oddly similar, though. Both are men of the military, both are extremely intelligent, loyal to the death, and even though Lord John is gay and secretly in love – and lust – with Jamie, which initially disgusts Jamie due to his own horrific rape and torture many years before at the hands of another British army captain, Jack Randall (not to mention the fact that he is not homosexual), in this book they are ultimately able to come to a mutual respect and cautious friendship.

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Being 18th century London, the book also abounds with the excess of rich food that was typical of that era and place. Lord John dines at his private club one evening with friends, where they drink, gamble, and eat with aplomb a large feast, including something fascinating, called salmagundi. Don’t you just love that word?

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Grey, with some experiences of von Namtzen’s capacities, rather thought the Hanoverian was likely to engulf the entire meal single-handedly and then require a quick snack before retiring………..in the social muddle that ensued, all four found themselves going in to supper together, with a salmagundi and a few bottles of good Burgundy hastily ordered to augment the meal.

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According to Wikipedia, salmagundi is a salad dish, originating in England in the early 17th century, made up of cooked meats and seafood, vegetables, fruit, leaves, nuts and even flowers, dressed with oil, vinegar and spices. The meaning of the word is thought to come from the French “salmagondis” which is a mix of widely disparate things. Which mine certainly is, and a great way to use up veg, fruit, and meat left over in the refrigerator! This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
6 chicken legs, skin on
6 small potatoes, mixed red, purple and white
6 sprigs thyme
1 head of garlic
6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons halved walnuts
2 cups green beans, trimmed
1 cup roasted red peppers, thinly sliced
4 cornichons or tiny dill pickles
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 hard-boiled eggs
1 tablespoon finely chopped sage
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 cup raw shrimp
3 radishes, thinly sliced
1 green apple, cored and thinly sliced
1 beefsteak tomato, quartered
1 bunch green grapes

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F.

Place chicken and potatoes in a roasting pan, and drizzle over olive oil and fresh thyme. Season with salt and pepper. Slice the head off the garlic, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper, and put into a garlic roaster.

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Roast both for 45 minutes, until chicken is golden and crispy, the potatoes are soft, and the garlic is roasted. You’ll know by the scent.

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Melt a teaspoon butter in a large nonstick pan. Add the walnuts and green beans, and some lemon juice. Cook for about 15 minutes, until the beans are softened but still have a bit of crunch. Season with salt and pepper, and transfer to a plate to cool.

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Melt another teaspoon of butter, and add the chopped sage and shallot. Cook for about 5 minutes. Add the shrimp and cook until the shrimp is pink, about 3 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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Whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. Slice the radishes, cornichons and tomatoes. Arrange on a large platter. Core and slice the apple and also arrange it on the platter.2017-04-09 19.05.29_resized

Arrange the green beans, the shrimp, chicken, and potatoes topped with the wholeroasted garlic cloves. Squeeze over the rest of the lemon juice, then arrange the grapes. Drizzle any remaining vinaigrette over the vegetables and serve immediately.

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On top of tasting wonderful, it’s also very aesthetically pleasing. The mishmash of colors, textures, tastes and smells is quintessentially 18th century, and I do feel Lord John might approve of this dish.