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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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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The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Kate Morton is, for me anyway, hit or miss. I loved The Lake House, and have plans to blog it sometime in the future. I disliked The Forgotten Garden because it was just so implausible. But I really enjoyed The Clockmaker’s Daughter. It is precisely the type of book I love – fictional but set during the Victoria era in England, a mysterious house, a group of artists, a mystery going back over 100 years, and even some eerie haunted house action.

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The premise is pretty simple. Elodie, a young lady living in modern-day London, works as an archivist and discovers a hidden satchel in her office one day. The satchel, as it turns out, belonged to a famous Victorian-era painter named Edward Radcliffe who suffered a major tragedy in his life and stopped painting before his masterpiece – which was never found – could be finished. In the satchel is his sketchbook with a portrait of a house which Elodie recognizes, though she’s never been there before. There is also a photograph of a gorgeous young woman, Lily, who was used as Radcliffe’s model, though her true  identity is unknown.

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It’s Lily’s character who is the narrator throughout the book, though in a very unusual way. SPOILER ALERT: Lily is a ghost who haunts the mysterious house seen in the sketch book and oddly recognized by Elodie, and how she got to be the resident spirit haunting the house is a major storyline in the book. It’s actually quite a clever literary device, I thought, and it doesn’t mar the flow of the words. I hate that, when a writer tries something they think will be “cool” or “new” and it ends up being more irritating than anything else.

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In feeling, this book reminded me of The Little Stranger, which I blogged last year, and which is truly one of the more eerie books I’ve read in the past few years. Anything with the whole haunted house vibe already earns brownie points in my book, and the house in this book is straight outta literary porn – hidden compartments, twisty staircases, leaded windows that may or may not reflect ghostly presences, a huge, sprawling garden in which anything can happen, and of course, those wide-windowed bedrooms that hide forbidden love affairs, hidden diaries, and any number of secrets.

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I think the only character I didn’t much care for Elodie. I know I’m mean sometimes, but goddamn it, grow a spine already! Sheesh. What a total and complete wimp this girl is. She’s engaged to someone she acknowledges she doesn’t feel deeply for, she is totally happy to let others plan her wedding and essentially run her life, she refuses to tell her landlady Mrs. Berry that she’s moving out to get married, and she is so out of touch with her own emotions and motivations that she can’t figure out why she keeps using the mystery of the satchel and the sketchbook and the photograph of Lily as her escape. HELLO! You don’t want to marry the guy, sweetie! It’s not rocket science! I saw that on page 4. But I like strong women so it’s no surprise that she vaguely aggravated me. 🙂 Anyway, she and  Mrs. Berry have a lovely ritual of having a cocktail together in the afternoons, and being that I fell in love with this drink when I was in Venice, it seemed quite appropriate to recreate it here.

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She reappeared carrying a tray loaded with a jug fizzing orange. Mrs. Berry had been on a trip to Tuscany with her watercolor group the previous year and had developed a penchant for Aperol Spritz. She filled a generous glass for each of them and passed one across the table. “Salute!”

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INGREDIENTS
3 ounces Aperol
3 ounces Prosecco
1 ounce soda water
3-4 ice cubes
Orange for garnish

METHOD
In a large wineglass or old-fashioned glass, put the ice cubes.

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Pour over the Aperol. Isn’t it pretty?

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Pour over the Prosecco.

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Add the splash of soda water.

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Garnish the glass with the orange slices, admire the color and be reminded of sunset in Venice before chugging it down. Good stuff! But it goes down so smoothly that you don’t feel it, at least until you try to stand up and can’t. Not that it’s ever happened to me.

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The Waiting Room by F.G. Cottam

F.G. Cottam is my new favorite author of horror, supernatural and paranormal fiction. He’s published several works, and I’d previously blogged The House of Lost Souls, which was the first book I read by him and the one that hooked me into his elegant, spare and eerie style of writing. The Waiting Room is a unique and creepy ghost story that incorporates elements of time travel, though not in a sci-fi way.

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The main character of Martin Stride reminded me a bit of Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues, just in appearance and description. He’s been seeing and hearing ghostly apparitions on his large estate, his kids are having terrifying visions and dreams, and he consults TV ghost hunter Julian Creed for assistance, which is where the book starts. Creed is, of course, a total charlatan though a very good one, but when he actually experiences the terrifying haunting for himself, his entire perspective shifts.

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Elena is Julian’s assistant, and I loved her character. I think one of the main reasons I like Cottam’s books overall is because he writes so eloquently in the voice of his female characters and they are multilayered and intelligent. Sometimes, male authors try to write in the female voice and it can be jarring and usually irritating to me, but Cottam’s characterization of Elena and of Martin Stride’s wife Monica are incredibly well-done. Elena and Julian had previously been romantically and sexually involved, and though you don’t get the details, you know something bad happened that caused a personal, though not professional, rift. How they find their way back to each other is both romantic, sad, and plays a pivotal role in the book’s unusual but sad and uplifting ending, if that makes any sense.

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The haunting itself is fascinating, caused by the grieving parents of a wealthy WWI veteran who died. His parents are into the paranormal and decide to try some necromancy to bring him back. Big, big mistake. Big. Huge. If you’ve ever read the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, which is one of the only stories that truly frightened me so badly that I had to sleep with the lights on, you’ll get an idea of why this is so not what to do with the dead.

[UNSET]

In an early sequence when Martin first encounters the haunting, he is out on his estate picking up apples from where they’ve fallen on the ground, bringing them home to his wife as she is baking pies. His estate contains an old, unused rail line and a dilapidated train station waiting room from the first World War, and it’s here that the specter appears.

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The waiting room lay to the east of the house, to its rear. One evening about a fortnight prior to seeking his meeting with Creed, Stride had been gathering windfalls in the orchard, which was situated a few hundred yards on from the kitchen garden. The orchard was small and ancient and the apples of a unique variety. They were good to the taste, but tart enough for baking, too.

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I had several apples gathered from friends’ trees and decided that it was time for me to tackle that old classic, apple pie. So here we go.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pre-made pie crusts. Pre-bake one of the crusts and keep the other cold until ready to bake. You’ll see why below.
6 apples of any variety. I used 3 tart Granny Smith, 3 red and 1 Golden Delicious
1/2 cup of lemon juice
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup granulated sugar
4 tablespoons butter, preferably unsalted
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 egg

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 375F. Peel, core and slice the apples.

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Put in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar, stir to mix and leave to macerate for up to 30 minutes.

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Heat the butter in a skillet over medium heat and pour in the apple mixture. Cook for 10-12 minutes until the fruit softens.

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Add the flour, the salt, the vanilla and nutmeg, stir, then cook gently for a few minutes until it forms a thick, caramely sauce.

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Pour the mixture into one of the empty pie shells.

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I’ve said before that no one is ever going to ask me to quit my day job to decorate cakes and pies, and they are right. I couldn’t work with the second, cold pie crust as it started breaking, so I got fancy and cut out heart-shaped dough pieces to cover the top of the pie. You can see how well it worked………not.

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Whisk the egg with a bit of water, and brush the egg wash over the top of the pie crust hearts.

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Bake for 45 minutes.

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Serve with whipped cream, ice cream, or alone. Very tasty!

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Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly

I think I’ve mentioned my lack of enthusiasm for most non-fiction books before. However, I discovered Sharon Bennett Connolly’s amazing blog, History, The Interesting Bits, a few years ago, and her subsequent book, Heroines of the Medieval World, so hooked me into her writing that I immediately ordered the book and was sucked into the medieval universe of little-known historical women who accomplished some pretty amazing things.

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Bennett Connolly has that knack of turning everyday, ordinary, day-to-day lives into something greater and larger than all of us. What I particularly love about this book is that it tells stories of women who actually existed, had kids, raised families, married (often multiple times), maintained homes, and who made a name for themselves within a world that essentially viewed them as property. There are, of course, the very well known medieval heroines such as Joan of Arc, Heloise d’Argenteuil (she of Abelard and Heloise romantic fame), Hildegarde of Bingen, and a dear and personal friend of mine from Catholic school, St. Julian of Norwich who wrote Revelations of Divine Love and was the first Catholic mystic I ever read……..though not the last.

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There weren’t any specific food mentions in this book, but being that it’s about women and their traditional role in a culture and society, of course cooking and food preparation was likely the most essential task in their lives, after giving birth, of course. And it gave me some leeway in choosing what I wanted to make. Bennett Connolly’s heroines lived in medieval England, France, Italy, Spain, Wales and Germany, so you have a marvelous variety of food right there to choose from AND the marvelous variety of female heroines. And my favorite heroine in this book has to be the little-known Venetian writer Christine de Pisan. One of the very first women who was actually paid for her writing – imagine that! – she was born in Venice, Italy in 1364.

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Her father was a court astrologer and physician for the Venetian court until he accepted a position with the French court and the family moved there in 1368. So though native to Italy, she was very French in her outlook, political views, and most especially in her writing. Her husband died in 1389, leaving her with three children. In order to support them, she turned to writing and produced her most well-known work, The Book of the City of Ladies, an image of which is shown below.

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As Bennett Connolly describes:
The book tells of the lives of past and present heroines, including pagan, Hebrew, and Christian ladies who were renowned for being examples of exemplary womankind, famed for their chastity, loyalty and devotion. It included the lives of female saints who remained steadfast in their devotion to God in the face of martyrdom. City of Ladies was Christine’s response to the misogynistic portrait of womankind that was present in many works of the era, in which women were blamed for the misery in which men found themselves.

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That doesn’t sound at ALL familiar now, does it?

Anyway, I found this marvelous website dedicated to medieval recipes from various countries in Europe – www.medievalcuisine.com – and found one from Italy that sounded delicious. So in honor of Christine de Pisan and all the women of medieval times, I present cheese and pinenut fritters – fritelle da Imperadore Magnifici – which would have been commonly eaten as a sweet dish in the Roman and Venetian regions in the time of de Pisan’s life. I tweaked to make it more savory and added my own flavoring twists as I always do.

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INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
4 sage leaves, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 egg whites
2 generous handfuls of pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons flour
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan until they brown and give off that nutty scent. Set aside.

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Mix the cheeses together, and grate in the garlic.

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Gently whisk the egg whites before adding to the cheese mixture.

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Add in the toasted pine nuts and the finely minced sage, and then add in the flour and the salt, stirring everything together.

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Heat the olive oil until shimmering, and one spoonful at a time, scoop the cheesy batter into the oil. Fry until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side, and drain on paper towels. Eat while still hot.

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These are quite delicious, not overly salty and very rich, so you’ll probably only want one or two. And though the flavorings are my own, the basic method is essentially medieval, and are authentically Italian. Just like Christine de Pisan!

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Book Giveaway to Celebrate Food in Books Reaching a Milestone!

I officially hit 400 blog followers today! Woo hoo! A huge thank you to everyone who continues to support my little blog that could. I know 400 isn’t a huge number, but it means so much to know that my words reach that many people.

To celebrate, and to thank my followers, I’m having a book giveaway.  Which character from a book would you most want to cook dinner for, and why? I will choose a random winner and that person will get a copy of the marvelous Nigella Lawson’s latest cookbook At My Table. I have this book, and it has some truly wonderful and tasty dishes.

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The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

I didn’t actually intend to blog this book, not that it wasn’t enjoyable but because I had actually forgotten I had it on my bookshelves. As fortune would have it, I found some late-summer squash blossoms at my nearby grower’s market yesterday morning, along with many other garden goodies. Anyway, back to the book. Set in Italy, obviously, The Tuscan Child is a pretty good read about a young woman named Joanna whose father Hugo has died and left her what’s left of his property and fortune in England. Arranging his funeral, she naturally has to go through letters and paperwork and discovers among his things a love letter from a woman named Sofia. Sofia, it turns out, rescued Hugo during WWII, when his fighter plane was shot down over her Tuscan village of San Salvatore, and of course, they fall in love. But of course, true love never runs smoothly, particularly during a world war when the country you’ve been trapped in is invaded by disgusting Nazis.

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The book is told from two viewpoints and in two points in history. Joanna and her journey from England to Italy to learn more about Sofia and the Tuscan child she mentions in her letter, wanting to find out if this woman and her father had a baby together. Hugo’s story details his plane crash, how he and Sofia fall in love, and the occupation of Italy during WWII, which was fascinating to me. I never realized that Italy actually turned on Germany and surrendered to the Allied Forces, but the fact that the Nazi army was still actually physically in Italy made it much more difficult to fight them, since the Nazis were particularly nasty after their one-time partners turned against them.

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Hugo is part of the Allied effort to fully get the Nazis out of Italy when his plane is shot down. He hides in an old, abandoned church and is found by Sofia, who has struggles of her own in the village. Her husband is gone, feared dead and later in the book, she is accused of collaborating with the Nazis. And poor Joanna is kind of an annoying character, initially whiny and passive and self-pitying. It’s not until she goes to Italy to find Hugo and Sofia’s “Tuscan child” that she starts taking initiative, seeing the bigger picture, and essentially growing up.  She stays in San Salvatore with a wonderful woman named Paola, her daughter Angelina, and Angelina’s newborn daughter. Probably the best parts of this book were the cooking passages. Of course, being in Tuscany, there has to be food and food galore is part of this book. Paola cooks homemade pasta, brodo with tomatoes and stale bread, artichokes, asparagus, and the thing that made me get this book out and reread it for today’s post – the stuffed squash blossoms.

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“Let’s get on with the meal, Mamma. I am hungry and I am sure Signorina Joanna is, too.” “Then lay the table and slice the bread,” Paola said, going ahead of us into the cool kitchen. “And put out the salami and the cheese and wash those radishes.” She turned to me. “Now pay attention if you want to see how we stuff the zucchini blossoms.” She put some of the white cheese into a bowl, chopped up and added some of the herb I had now decided was mint, then grated some lemon zest on it. Then she took a spoon and carefully stuffed this mixture into each of the blossoms.

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I’d had them when I visited Italy a few years ago and they were divine, lightly coated with a lemony batter and stuffed with creamy, herbed cheese so I decided that, having found these beautiful yellow flowers, I was going to make them. So I did.

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INGREDIENTS
12 squash blossoms
3/4 cup of flour
1 teaspoon sea salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup of San Pellegrino sparkling limonata or any lemon seltzer
1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
Lemon zest to taste
Fresh mint
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet until shimmering.

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Finely chop the mint. I got to bust out the mezzaluna for this so I was happy.

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Mix the mint with the Ricotta cheese and zest the lemon into this mixture. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper as needed.

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Gently open the squash blossoms and stuff each cavity with the lemony, minty cheese mixture. The smell is awesome, with the cool mint offset by the sharp lemon.

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Don’t overfill them or they won’t close. Seal them by twisting together the head petals. Set aside.

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Prepare the batter by adding the salt and pepper to the flour, mixing together, and slowly pouring in the limonata. Stir to mix until you have a relatively thick batter for coating the flowers.

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Dip each stuffed blossom into the batter, shake off the excess, and fry for about 2 minutes per side, until golden brown.

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Let drain on paper towels and devour!

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And if you have any batter left, throw in some shaved Parmesan and make cheesy fritters. They were an excellent accompaniment to these gorgeous squash blossoms.

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Beauty by Robin McKinley

As I’ve shared before, I am a sucker for fairy tales. Whether it’s the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, Neil Gaiman, Gregory Maguire, or Robin McKinley, the tales of kings, queens, princesses, trolls, talking animals, enchanted castles, and beasts have fascinated me since I was a little girl. But of all my favorites, the timeless story of Beauty and the Beast captured my imagination and still fascinates me this day.

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I mean, how much more profound can you get than a story about seeing past someone’s facade to their true heart and soul, and true love showing you the beauty inherent inside us all? I think in our looks-obsessed world, this story is even more timely than ever before. We live in a world where we swipe right if someone’s appearance doesn’t immediately grab us, we open up our hearts and share deep, poignant things about ourselves via IM with virtual strangers whose looks we like but whom we really know nothing about, and we mistake beauty and fame for personality, accomplishment, and intelligence. And I think as a society, we are more lonely than ever before because we judge so many things by how they look and not how they really are.

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The story of Beauty is retold in this marvelous book by Robin McKinley, and takes many of the traditional tropes and turns them upside down. Yes, there are three sisters but they all love one another. Beauty herself is considered plain compared to her two stunning sisters Grace and Hope; and when she goes to live with the Beast, she is nervous that he won’t be pleased with her appearance – a nice little twist as the Beast himself is at first very frightening. The enchanted rose, of course, makes its appearance in various ways, my favorite being that when its petals start to fall, they turn to gold and clink when hitting the floor or table. I love that!

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The illustration above is from my most treasured childhood book “Beauty and the Beast” illustrated by the amazing Mercer Mayer, which is also featured in the first photo. The illustrations are beyond gorgeous, rich, sumptuous, full of color and life.

Overall, the tale is the same – Beauty’s father loses his money, the family must move to the country, he encounters the Beast when returning home after hearing his fortune might be restored and takes a red rose from the Beast’s garden for Beauty, and Beauty goes to live with the Beast to appease  him. The Beast is, of course, under an enchantment, though in McKinley’s retelling, it’s not because he was an arrogant, vain, wealthy prince who refused to help others, but instead, he is under a sort of family curse.

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I like this version because Beauty is a total nerd bookworm who prefers the company of her armchair, a mug of hot chocolate and a book to any kind of company or society. That is so me! And when she goes to live with the Beast, he showers her with gorgeous clothes, beautiful shoes, jewels of all kinds, an enchanted stable for her beloved horse Greatheart, and food that would boggle the mind.

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That wonderful table would never have offered me the same dish twice; but while I reveled in the variety, I also sometimes demanded a repetition. There was a dark treacly spice cake that I liked very much, and asked for several times. Sometimes it burst into being like a small exploding star, several feed above my head, and settled magnificently to my plate; sometimes a small silver tray with a leg at each of five or six corners would leap up and hurry towards me from a point far down the table.

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Being a foodie, I of course loved the descriptions of the feasts, and though there was not a lot of specific food description, the passage above where Beauty talks about her favorite spice cake that the Beast’s invisible servants make her, was so charming and sounded so yum that I was inspired to make my own version – a cinnamon almond cake! Inspired by Nigella Lawson’s gluten-free clementine cake made with ground almonds instead of flour, this is my own spicy version.

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INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup melted butter
1 cup ground almonds
1 cup almond flour
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon baking powder
6 eggs, room temperature
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons almond extract

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and melt the butter in the microwave.

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Mix together the ground almonds, almond flour, sugar, ground cinnamon and baking powder in a bowl.

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Crack the eggs into the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid and mix slowly together.

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Add the melted butter, the vanilla and almond almond extract and mix again.

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One spoonful at a time, add the almond flour and cinnamon mixture to the eggs and butter and mix at medium speed until you have a dark reddish-brown batter with bits of almond peeking out.

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Pour into a buttered and lined cake pan and bake for 40 minutes, checking at the half-hour mark to make sure it hasn’t burned. The toothpick trick will let you know when it’s done.

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Allow to cool before serving, and enjoy with morning coffee or tea, or a glass of wine in the evening. Either works with this spicy, delicious cake. The almonds keep it light and give it a wonderful flavor, and it is super moist, gluten-free and would also be good with whipped cream on top. Tasty enough to melt the heart of the most hardened Beast.

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The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

Any book set in Venice is always moved to the top of my reading list. And of course, any book set in Venice about cooking and food is going to have the most special place in my heart. The Book of Unholy Mischief definitely takes the cake here! Luciano is the narrator, a young boy who is rescued from homelessness, poverty and theft on the streets of Venice. His rescuer is Chef Ferrero, who is chef to the Doge of Venice himself, and when he saves Luciano, he takes him back to the Doge’s Palace, cleans him up, and gives him a job as his apprentice. Ferrero is no ordinary chef, though. He is a rock star! In the late 1400s, not many chefs would be so adventurous as to try food from the New World such as potatoes, but Chef Ferrero does. He is also at the center of a conspiracy theory that encompasses Luciano as the book progresses……….think Chocolat meets The Da Vinci Code……though that is oversimplifying it somewhat.

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Luciano continues his education in the Doge’s kitchen under Ferrero’s tutelage, learning more about food than he ever dreamed – a typical bildungsroman, but set among the wealthy and learned of Venice. Of course, the plot is not all about food though – a mystical book purporting to give immortality to those who can decipher its secrets is said to be in Venice, and with his native intelligence, Luciano starts to suspect that Chef Ferrero (who he has come to see as a father figure) might well possess this book and be using it in his innovative and magical cooking techniques.

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Well, hell. A book about food, about cooking, about mystical books, about Venice………of course I had to read it! All my favorite things all in one place! The food descriptions, in particular, are enough to make any foodie weep with joy as the sensual and beautiful pleasure of cheese, wine, meat, olives, cakes, spices and herbs, seafood, are detailed in amazingly graphic and drool-inciting images and words. Even humble foods like onions, which we all tend to overlook, are given a power when glorified and honored by the Chef himself as he talks about the effect of food upon the human psyche.

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My eyes watered from the onion fumes, and the stinging tears diverted my curiosity. I aked, “Why do onions make us cry?” Chef Ferrero shrugged as a tear slid down his cheek. “You may as well ask why one cries in the presence of great art, or at the birth of a child. Tears of awe, Luciano. Let them flow.” I wiped my eyes but the chef let tears roll freely down his face. A tear dripped from his chin as he scooped up the diced onion for the stockpot. His awe would season the soup.

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I just love that passage. It exemplifies the joys of the most simple foods in cooking, and also reminds me that it’s the most simple and humble of foods that create the most awesome flavors. How boring and tasteless most savory dishes would be without the addition of onion? I shudder to think. And with that in mind, I was inspired to make onions the star of a dish instead of an ingredient, so here we go with roasted onions with fennel, red wine vinegar, and basil, taken from my idol Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book Nigellissima. I made this amazing dish as part of a birthday meal for my dear friend Jade and her two sons, including a fantastic white cake with white vanilla buttercream frosting. It was only my third time ever making a white cake from scratch, and I was quite pleased with how everything turned out.

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INGREDIENTS
4 medium red onions
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh cracked pepper
4 cups of fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Sea salt to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 425F. Slice the onions lengthwise, keeping the stems. Like this.

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Arrange on a baking tray and pour over the olive oil.

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Sprinkle with the fennel seeds and black pepper.

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Bake for an hour, then remove and add sea salt. The onions will have darkened and crisped up outside, with the insides softened. Let cool, then sprinkle over the red wine vinegar.

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Add the basil leaves like you would a salad, and add more vinegar and salt if it needs it.

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It’s delicious, light and a perfect side accompaniment to a heavier meat or pasta dish. The fennel seed echoes the slight licorice flavor of the basil, and the red wine vinegar offsets it beautifully. So good and easy!

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The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan

What I found fascinating about The Dead House is the fact that it’s narrated in first person by a character who is not the focus of the story, but whose own story is as much a part of the overall arc as the main character. Mike is an art dealer and his best friend is Maggie, an artist whom he represents. She’s been recently from the hospital after having been savagely assaulted by her ex-boyfriend. She finds an old cottage in the Irish countryside, starts fixing it up in anticipation of painting something new, and invites Mike, his future wife Alison, and another friend and they spend the weekend exploring, drinking, cooking, laughing, and on the last night, playing with an Ouija board. Because what else would anyone want to do in a seaside cottage on the isolated Irish coast in a country that boasts its fair share of ghosts, spirits, pagan gods and other creepy things? And of course, we all know that when we are dumb enough to play with the supernatural, it almost always plays back with us.

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Maggie becomes even more isolated at the cottage as whatever spirit that was summoned by the Ouija board starts spending more and more time in her company. Ack! Mike, whose relationship with Alison is developing and which is described in lovely and realistic detail of a true love match (but in a way that’s not mushy or sappy, thank God), and when he goes to visit Maggie yet again and sees how her world is deteriorating, all else goes to Hell. Literally and figuratively.

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The aspect of the story I found difficult was the fact that Maggie, although the de facto focus of the story, is never truly given a personality or background. We know she’s an artist, we know she’s drawn to men who don’t treat her well, we know she’s somewhat of a lost soul, we know she’s a creative type with an odd connection to the stranger things in life, but we never really understand why she is the way she is. Mike talks about Maggie from almost an emotional remove, perhaps it’s because what happens to Maggie ultimately ends up affecting his own life……….but enough spoilers.

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Overall, I loved this unique ghost story, heavy with the menacing sense that Ireland’s history is still with us today and is as scary and haunting as it was hundreds of years ago when blood sacrifices to their pagan gods were the order of the day. Also, O’Callaghan writes so beautifully about the nature in Ireland – the rocks, the glint of sunshine on the ocean, the various trees and flowers and plants that make the countryside into such a picture-perfect place.

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Before the sh*t hits the fan with the Ouija board, the four friends spend one evening making a communal meal of spaghetti Bolognese, or spag bol, as it is called in the United Kingdom. I thought a nice potful of Bolognese sauce was in order, so that’s what I made,  based on the late, great Antonio Carluccio, who insists there be no herbs whatsoever. And yes, I know it’s weird to make an Italian classic from a book set in Ireland. Don’t write in.

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INGREDIENTS
6 chicken livers
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 baby carrots, finely chopped
2-3 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 head of roasted garlic
3 ounces ground beef
3 ounces ground pork
1 cup pancetta, finely chopped
4 generous tablespoons good-quality tomato paste
1 glass dry red wine
1 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Firstly, soak the chicken livers in milk overnight in the refrigerator. Please trust me here. They add such a depth of savory flavor that is so delicious and when cooked and mashed in the sauce, thicken it deliciously.

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Rinse the chicken livers, pat dry and fry in butter for about 5 minutes per side. Let cool.

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Melt the oil and butter together in a large pot, and add in the chopped carrot, celery and onion. Saute for about 5 minutes, then squeeze in the roasted cloves of garlic. The smell is out of this world good!

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Add the ground pork, ground beef, and pancetta, and stir together so that the juices from the meats mingle with the flavor of the vegetables. Let cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally so things don’t stick. You want to cook it until it’s almost dry, as this adds to the texture.

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Pour in the tomato paste, and stir around. The color is like a deep brick red, very different than the color you get from cooking with crushed tomatoes.

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Pour in the red wine and the chicken stock, and stir to mix. You will still have a thick texture, but the wine and stock thin it and add to the flavor.

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After 10 minutes, add in the chicken livers, and using a wooden spoon, mash them against the side of the pot to thicken the sauce.

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Turn the heat to low, stir again, cover and let simmer gently for up to 2 hours, checking on it occasionally. Add in more wine or stock if necessary.

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Serve with spaghetti for a true British spag bol, tagliatelli which is much more traditional in Italy, or if you’re not eating carbs like me, eat with a pile of zucchini noodles, which are excellent! The sauce itself is so good, complex and thick and rich, yet with a hint of sweetness. Delicious!

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