Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-GarcĂ­a

I’m as guilty as the next person of judging. I judge wine by the label on the bottle, musical artists by genre, and of course, books by their covers. In this case, can you blame me? The cover for Mexican Gothic is stunningly beautiful and hits me on all my levels: aesthetic, moody, mysterious, and colorful. Combined with the word “Gothic,” you’re damn right I pre-ordered this months in advance and devoured it in 6 hours when it finally arrived. It was well worth the wait.

The gist of the book is thus: Noemi is a wealthy socialite living the life in 1950s Mexico. She’s a beautiful and intelligent woman whose chief problem is that she lives in a time and a place where people can’t believe a woman can be both, so she compensates by putting on a bored persona. But inside, she is ready for something more. When her father gets a urgent letter from Catalina, Noemi’s recently-married cousin, indicating she is in danger in her new marriage, he sends Noemi to the town of High Place to find out what is going on and to bring Catalina home if necessary. Not so fast, though. Catalina’s in-laws and new husband are what you’d call shady.

Catalina has married into the very wealthy and extremely weird Doyle family, and boy, do they put the “fun” in “family dysfunction.” The family patriarch, Howard, is beyond creepy. He is somewhere between 90 and death, and is pervertedly fascinated with the beautiful Noemi. Catalina’s husband, Virgil, is handsome and flirtatious toward Noemi, and she is both sexually drawn to him and repulsed by him at the same time. Florence, Virgil’s sister, runs the household like a military commander, not allowing Noemi to do or say anything. You can imagine how well that goes over with a young, independent and intelligent heroine like Noemi.

And then there’s the youngest son, Francis, whose interest in botany, plants and growing fungi – namely mushrooms – are pivotal pieces of the book’s plot. Noemi finds herself becoming friends with Francis and the longer she stays in High Place, the more she starts to be affected by the house, with terrifying dreams and visions, and she starts to suspect that something very weird and very scary is happening. It’s not actually difficult to figure out what the source of the visions and hallucinations are, but it’s part of the fun in reading this beautifully-written and atmospheric novel.

This is a wonderful book that combines mystery with Gothic romance, eugenics with some creepy Mexican folklore, some really great horror elements including ghosts, visions of blood, terrifying dreams, and a unique take on the haunted house trope that makes for some genuinely riveting reading. It actually reminded me quite a lot of the film Crimson Peak, that eerie movie by Guillermo del Toro, with similar elements of hallucinations, incestuous relations, and just that overall sense of mystery and doom.

I’d consider this book more of a slow burn than one of non-stop, intense horror. The horror is there, all right, but it’s more of a low simmer, gradually escalating, grotesque, Lovecraftian, sickening horror that creeps up on you the further into the mystery you get, until you realize you’re trapped with Noemi there with no avenue of escape. I like the intense terror as much as any horror fan, but I really enjoyed the slow build toward the final unraveling of the mystery surrounding the Doyle family.

As with many of the other books I read, I found myself culinarily inspired by a passage that isn’t necessarily a food reference. when Noemi comes across Francis foraging in, of all places, the family cemetery! Hey, whatever floats your boat, right, but it also made me start thinking about what to make with those good ol’, fungus among us, mushrooms!

He glanced down, nodding, looking at his basket. Now that he was with her, she had regained her levity, and she peered curiously at him. “What do you have there?” she asked, pointing at the basket. “I’ve been collecting mushrooms.” “Mushrooms? At a cemetery?” “Sure. They’re all around.” “As long as you don’t plan to make them into a salad.” “What would be wrong with that?” “Only the thought of them growing over dead things.” “But then mushrooms always grow over dead things in a way.”

Yes, I was inspired to make a something from this passage about ‘shrooms growing over dead things. Well, I’m strange like that. Anyway, being that the book was set in Mexico, and that it’s also green chile season here in my home state of New Mexico, I decided a tasty recipe of mushroom, chorizo, and roasted corn queso fundido with homemade tortilla chips was on the menu. And the best part? I got to roast the green chile and the corn outside on my charcoal grill in my new backyard, thus breaking it in! In a manner of speaking. 🙂

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 red onion
6 cloves of garlic
1 lb chorizo sausage, squeezed out of the casing
1 lb white mushrooms, sliced
1 lb bella mushrooms, sliced
1 lb Monterey Jack cheese
1 lb Muenster cheese
1 lb queso fresco
6 Anaheim chile peppers, roasted and peeled
2 fresh ears of corn, still in the husks, roasted and cooled
1 dozen corn tortillas

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a heavy Dutch oven, saute the onion and garlic until soft, then add the chorizo and saute another 10 minutes.

Add in the mushrooms and saute again for another 10 minutes.

Cut the roasted corn kernels from the cobs, then add to the mushrooms and chorizo mixture. I actually did this using a Bundt pan, which was suggested to me by my friend and sous-chef Krista, and it was the best idea ever!

Chop the roasted green chile and add to the other ingredients in the pan.

Cube the cheeses into small pieces and add their gooey, melting goodness to the pan.

Mix everything together and cook on low, covered, so that the cheeses melt and get that lovely, unctuous texture that make your mouth water.

While the cheese is melting, heat the broiler in your oven and slice the corn tortillas into fourths, put on a baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes until they get golden and crispy. Let cool.

Serve the piping-hot, meltingly gooey queso fundido with the tortilla chips and devour. Sooooo delicious, rich and very decadent. Eat this on a day when you haven’t eaten another thing and have gotten in a good hour of cardio. It’s well worth it, and the mushrooms will only make you have visions of heavenly deliciousness!

The Heartbreaker by Susan Howatch

You wouldn’t normally think that the Church of England would make for scintillating reading, but you’d be sooooooo wrong if you start reading the “Church of England” series written by British author Susan Howatch. I stumbled across one of them going on 15 years ago now, and was hooked. The series is broken up into two semi-series – for lack of a better way to put it – with the first six books focusing on the evolution of the Church from post-WWI into the late 1960s with all the attendant changes that happened in the world. The second series consists of three intertwined books that feature references and characters from the first six books, but are set in 1990s London and take on much more timely and controversial topics than the first six. The last book of the series, The Heartbreaker, goes pretty in-depth into prostitution, homosexuality, cult mentality, some paranormal and supernatural elements including a form of devil worship, and ultimately, love and redemption. I highly recommend all nine books, but the latter three are unputdownable.

The main character is Gavin Blake, a male prostitute whose clientele are wealthy, middle-aged gay men, but he is actually heterosexual. If you’re thinking “what the hell, how can a male prostitute servicing gay men be straight” you’d be where I was when I cracked open the book. But it’s incredibly fascinating how Howatch writes about human nature in all of these books, particularly the fluid nature of sexuality and how it’s possible to train your mind to do something completely alien to your nature if you’re in survival mode.

Gavin works for a woman named Elizabeth, who is his pimp but who also runs a very nasty little group made up of people who use bizarre sex and occult rituals to gain power in London. He has come to depend on her as he is traumatized by much loss in his own life, loss of his brother, messed-up parents, the works. He’s incredibly good-looking and charming, but the internal damage from his upbringing and the subsequent abuses he has gone through with Elizabeth turning him into a prostitute (though he doesn’t initially see it as abuse) make him very superficial and facile. He indulges in affairs with women who he then dumps in his charming way……he is the ultimate heartbreaker who leaves a trail of disaster and heartbreak in his wake because he himself has had his heart broken and been devastated. Well, we all have in some way or other, haven’t we?

When his path starts crossing with a woman named Carta Graham, he starts idolizing her and lusting after her, not realizing that she represents, on a very deep level, a way of life he used to have growing up and also a way of life that he is craving, though he continues to stay in the world of prostitution. He also meets Nicholas Darrow, the rector of a church called St. Benet’s, a part of the Church of England that works with psychologists, doctors, and holistic healers, to create a place where people can worship and heal both physically and spiritually. Gavin is so emotionally damaged that it takes him awhile to figure out there can be a different way of life for him through Carta and Nicholas, and his journey starts……..but not without danger along the way.

The ways of the subconscious are deeply explored in all of these books, and particularly here. I’ve always found psychology and our inner instincts and how they sometimes work against us and make us do crazy or awful things in the name of survival, to be utterly fascinating. As Gavin starts to gradually extricate himself from the life of prostitution, he is helped by Carta, by Nick, and most importantly, by Susanne, who also works for Elizabeth as a bookkeeper but who had previously also been a prostitute until she had a meltdown and couldn’t do it any longer. She represents someone who both can leave that lifestyle and heal themselves and get educated and be independent, which is why Gavin initially hates her because she has done what he wants to do with his life.

Flowers and Italian wine at my new kitchen table.

Susanne helps Gavin out of a major jam, involving blackmail sex tapes, illicit sex, etc., and to thank her, he takes her to the Savoy for champagne, dinner and dancing, and the next day, as they wait for the fallout from Elizabeth possibly finding out what they’ve done, Susanne grudgingly makes Gavin food and they begin to develop a friendship and a relationship that neither of them have had before. As they share a frittata and wine post-shag (as they call it in England), they start planning how to escape Elizabeth and her long, evil grasp.

After the shag Susanne keeps me organised by telling me I’ve got to eat some more, and she fixes what she calls a “fry-tartar,” a jumbo omelette stuffed with onions, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes. We have to have eggs again because she’s run out of everything else, but the frittata’s so good I don’t care. We drink Italian wine with it and the cat goes in and out through the cat-flap, just as it would in a normal home.

Frittatas are among my favorite things to make, and not just because they’re relatively simple. I hate to admit this, but I am kind of a dumbass when it comes to making omelettes because I can’t master the damn omelette fold and flip. I know, I know, it’s easy, blah blah blah. It’s not. I have fucked up many, many potential omelettes in my life, and there was that time that one ended up on the floor………….thank God for dogs, is all I have to say. Anyway, here’s my take on a classic Italian frittata, or as Susanne would call it, a fry-tartar!

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 eggs, room temperature
1 russet potato, peeled and finely diced
1 red bell pepper, finely diced
3 green onions, finely diced
1 sausage link, squeezed out of its casing
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat your oven to 500 F. Add the oil to a heavy, cast-iron skillet and cook the potato until they soften, about 7-10 minutes. Set aside.

Mix the eggs together in a large bowl and whisk. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In the skillet, add a a bit more olive oil and add the diced red pepper, the diced onions, and the sausage meat, and stir together. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, until the onion is translucent and most of the liquid has cooked off.

Add the potatoes to skillet and mix everything together so everything is evenly spaced across the pan bottom.

Add the shredded cheese and the heavy cream to the eggs in the mixing bowl, whisk together again, then pour over the potato-pepper-sausage mixture in the skillet.

Cook stovetop over low heat until the eggs set on the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Give the skillet a good swirl so the eggs evenly coat everything, then put the egg mixture into the oven and cook for another 5 minutes, so the eggs cook evenly.

Remove, let cool, and flip out onto a platter. Serve with the Italian wine of your choice. It’s such a delicious and simple way to cook eggs and it’s an excellent way to use up what’s in your refrigerator before it goes bad or expires. And people will think you’re a damn kitchen goddess!

Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

If you’ve followed my blog long enough, you’ll be familiar with my great disdain for “chick lit,” not because I think literature by women for women is bad but because so much of it is terribly written, horribly edited, dumbed down, and the topic of true love is often written about in such a sappy-ass manner, or it’s totally clichĂ©d. I can’t stand clichĂ©s, in literature or in life. However, I would deem Cinnamon and Gunpowder as a type of “chick lit” except it was written by a man. So if you can imagine a clichĂ©d story about a female pirate on the high seas who kidnaps a male chef and makes him cook a gourmet meal for her once a week as a way to earn his freedom, I’d say, yes it has the makings of a cheesy-ass Harlequin romance novel.

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But I’d be wrong. This book is so wonderfully and well-written, so descriptive of life at sea, and written with such dry wit, and best of all, it takes what could be considered a boring literary trope – a pirate kidnapping someone and taking them on the high seas on a quest – and turns it into a feminist manifesto of a sort. And you gotta love a good female pirate, right? There are actually some female pirates in history – Grace O’Malley being the one that comes immediately to mind. 

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Mad Hannah Mabbott – and seriously, how could she be anything but a pirate with a moniker like that? – is the captain of The Flying Rose, and committed to righting the wrongs done by Lord Ramsey and his British colonial Pendleton Trading Company. Owen Wedgwood is chef to Lord Ramsey and in the process of serving a delectable gourmet meal to Ramsey and his assorted, equally aristocratic and horrible British guests, Hannah swoops in with her motley crew, kills the men, and kidnaps Owen. Owen is taken to sea initially as a lark and to cook for Hannah, who tells him he must cook her a gourmet meal once a week. The fact that he has limited foodstuffs, nearly no equipment and must cook on a swaying sea vessel has little effect on her. I think I would lose my damn mind if I were taken hostage on a pirate ship and told to cook with next to nothing, but if the pirate captain was tall, dark and handsome and I had to cook for him, I suppose I could force myself to make the effort. 🙂

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As you can no doubt guess, eventually Owen falls under the sway of Hannah’s magic, not because she is trying to entice him sexually, as you’d likely find in a chick-lit book, but because she is truly a strong woman who has grown up in a whorehouse and been sold to many  men before she gains her own independence on the high seas, because she is kind and caring in her own tough way, and because she is the mother to The Fox, another pirate who is fairly insane in his own way and her mothering instincts are what finally break down Owen’s defenses. Owen resists until nearly the end, making three ill-advised attempts to escape the ship, each funnier than the next, until one such evening he serves her his latest concoction, he notices her beauty and the fact that she is a bit curvier than usual due to his culinary skills, and realizes he is a goner.

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Being a foodie, reading the descriptions of Owen’s attempts to cook gourmet meals on a ship with few ingredients was delightful! Owen nourishes a homemade yeast starter by keeping it next to his heart and feeds it with varying liquids to keep it active. He smokes eels in tea, is able to make a herring pâtĂ©, creates vanilla-scented amaretto cookies, brews his own banana ale, rolls out homemade ravioli, braises pigeon, attempts a delectable-sounding chocolate mole flavored with soy sauce, and my own personal favorite, concocts potato-crusted crab cakes, the description of which made my mouth water.

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The last of the potatoes went into the crab croquettes. After grating and salting the tubers, I squeezed out as much water as I could and put the liquid aside to settle out. In half an hour, the starch had precipitated. I poured off the water and stirred the starch back into the potatoes (such are the humble measures of an eggless world) along with the virginal crab meat, black pepper, and dried cilantro, and set them aside for frying.

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Luckily for me, I don’t live in an eggless world, so making potato crab cakes was for me, a walk in the park.

INGREDIENTS
1 large egg, room temperature
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons Worchestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Sprinkle of sea salt
8 ounces fresh lump crab meat
1 cup mashed potatoes (I just boiled and mashed two russets and added salt and butter)

1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
Butter

METHOD
In a large bowl, whisk together the egg, mayonnaise, parsley, cilantro, Dijon mustard, Worchestershire sauce, Old Bay, lemon juice and salt.

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Gently mix in the crab meat and the mashed potatoes and form small cakes with your hands, then cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

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Preheat the oven to 450F and line a baking tray with parchment paper. Dredge each cake in breadcrumbs and dab the top of each crab cake with a small bit of butter before placing on the baking tray.

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Bake for 17 minutes or until light golden brown, and the smell of the crab and butter tortures you.

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Serve with a wasabi-lemon mayonnaise and dive in! So delicious, rich yet light, with the hint of the far-off sea and the zest of lemon. Wonderful! I feel certain I would not be drawn and quartered by a pirate queen for these.

Episode 7 of “Cooking the Books” Podcast Now Available!

The latest episode of my podcast “Cooking the Books” just dropped and it’s a good one! We’re talking literature’s most charming and horrendous psychiatrist and his fetish for organ meat, discussing the book – and film – that made him a household name, and I share a great method for chicken-liver crostini, so give it a listen at:

https://anchor.fm/cookingthebooks/episodes/The-Silence-of-the-Lambs-and-the-Cannibalistic-Joy-of-Chicken-Liver-and-Fava-Bean-Crostini-ef1i4u

I am also on Spotify so check me out there!

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

In desperate need of something new to read and some cooking inspiration during this ongoing pandemic, I did a Google search for best foodie literature and actually got several unexpected suggestions. Two were books that extolled the virtues of various alcoholic beverages and cocktails, and I was immediately intrigued. I am not one to say no to anything liquor-based, and in fact have blogged previously about various drinks, including the mint julep, the Aperol spritz, the Campari cocktail, the Sazerac cocktail, and my personal favorite, the Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster.

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So I decided this latest novel, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, was worthy of a read. And I’m glad I did! The premise of the book is thus: Bailey Chen is fresh out of college and seeking that elusive first job with a degree that we all went through when the ink was still wet on our university diplomas. She gets a part-time job bartending with her old high school buddy Zane, who had a massive crush on her back in the day and has now leveled up his own game with his new wardrobe, nice Chicago apartment and partial ownership of his uncle’s bar. One night, Bailey is on her way home after having mixed herself a rather unusual and strong cocktail and is shocked to see monsters stalking people in the greater Chicago downtown area. The cocktail – a screwdriver – is made with magical liquor in just the right amounts and allows Bailey not only to see these monsters but also imbues her with super-hero powers.

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That’s the idea of the book – liquor gives you superpowers. Well, hell! I could have told you that! After a few glasses of wine, I am the world’s greatest singer! 🙂 Anyway, Bailey has uncovered an entire world of bartenders who know the secrets of different cocktails and the various powers they give when made correctly. A screwdriver gives you extreme strength and speed. A tequila slammer gives the ability to create protective force fields. A Tom Collins allows you to breathe underwater. A White Russian and you can walk on air. A Martini lets you turn to glass. Irish coffee lets you create illusions in the minds of others. And so on.

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One of the most fun aspects of this book is reading the cocktail recipes that precede each chapter. Taken from The Devil’s Water Dictionary, each cocktail recipe is spelled out with the specific ingredients and garnishes needed, the precise measurements for each, the type of glass necessary to activate the magic in the cocktail, and then each ingredient is described in detail as to its origin, history, and how it came to be associated with the drink itself. It’s nothing heavy, this book, and that was what made it so much fun to read. It’s also set in the various cool neighborhoods in Chicago, one of my favorite cities, so it was really cool to jump around with the characters as they roam the streets of the Windy City hunting and killing nasty-ass monsters and getting shitfaced drunk in order to do it. Works for me!

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Not being much for hard liquor, I quite enjoyed reading about the powers of the Mojito cocktail. Now, I like a good Mojito because I love mint and lime together. Rum took me awhile to get behind because Captain Morgan and I had a really bad night together many years ago and it turned me off rum for years, but an ex-boyfriend who was an accomplished bartender made me a killer Mojito many years ago that changed my mind. And then there was this book passage:

Mint leaves, sugar, lime juice. Concentrating on details always helped…….She had spent her preshift Saturday drinking coffee and staying as alert as possible; now that she was up next for patrol, she was making herself a mojito – her ex-coworker Trina’s favorite, which would give her the power to manipulate ambient water to her will……..

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INGREDIENTS
6 mint leaves
2 sugar cubes or 1 tablespoon of sugar
1 lime
2 ounces white rum
Soda water
Crushed ice

METHOD
Drop 6 mint leaves, the sugar cubes, and the juice of one lime into a glass.

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Muddle the mint leaves until they are bruised and the sugar has dissolved.

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Add the 2 ounces of rum and a splash of soda water.

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Fill the glass with crushed ice, garnish with a mint sprig and a slice of lime, and serve. Knocks the wind back into your sails, this one does. After drinking it, you might very well feel that you can fly or at very least, manipulate ambient water like in the book. Don’t try it, though.

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REPOST – Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

I originally posted this blog in May 2017.  Today marks two years from the date that my idol Anthony Bourdain died. One of my biggest culinary influences, as well as someone who changed my worldview in general, I loved, respected and honored his work and who he was as a human being. I hope you enjoy this repost. 

Original posting: May 2017: Oh, that damn Monday fish. Anthony Bourdain, to whom I refer affectionately as “my future ex-husband,” is never going to live that down. I didn’t eat a Monday fish special at a restaurant for  five years after reading Kitchen Confidential. Of course, in his updated version of that classic foodie memoir, he recants in his inimitable style by saying “eat the fucking fish on Monday, already!”

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Bourdain is as snarky and smart-assy as they come. God, I love him. His attitude of irreverence, particularly within an industry that traditionally holds male chefs on very high pedestals, is refreshing. Though he is somewhat of a hypocrite in how he has previously mocked celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray whilst simultaneously pursuing his own brand of foul-mouthed celebrity, I can’t help but like the guy. He’s funnier than hell, can cook like an angel, curse like a devil, drink like a sailor, and is one of those men that just get more handsome and sexy with age. He’s welcome to eat crackers in bed with me anytime.

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What sets him apart is that he doesn’t take himself seriously, either in his writing or his cooking. He’s a good chef and he knows it, but he regularly mocks himself, and I like that in a person. We none of us should take ourselves so seriously in life, because we are all going to screw up eventually. I also like that he doesn’t have any arrogance toward his staff and he gives credit where credit is due – to the hardworking cooks, sous-chefs, servers, bakers, prep cooks, dishwashers and all the unseen migrant men and women behind the scenes who make the food.

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Without these workers, restaurants would shut down. They are the true backbone of the service industry, and I say this having worked for several years in the restaurant business myself; as a table busser, a hostess, a waitress, and a cashier at a well-known Mexican restaurant; and as a cocktail waitress at a couple of dive bars while in college.

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It was fun, but physically demanding and mentally exhausting. I got yelled at by customers and dropped numerous glasses of water working in the restaurant business; I got my butt pinched so often as a cocktail waitress that I think it’s permanently bruised; and for years after I left the Mexican restaurant I could not look at a bowl of salsa and basket of tortilla chips without gagging. I respect the hell out of people in the service industry, and Bourdain respects them, too.

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Well, my dear future ex-husband, I am going off the rails a little bit and making this dish in your honor ON A MONDAY! I’m taking you on, baby, and making that yellowfin tuna in a braised fennel, confit tomato, and saffron sauce. Except, with my usual recipe edits. This is the method that worked for me, based on this New York Times tasty recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
For the tomato confit:
1 pint cherry tomatoes
8 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
3 tablespoons fresh thyme and parsley
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

For the tuna:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 shallot, cut in thin slices
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
3 small tuna steaks, 5 oz. each
Zest and juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup of seafood stock
1/ 2 teaspoon saffron threads

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Cut a small slit across the bottom of each cherry tomato. Put the tomatoes and unpeeled garlic cloves in the boiling water for 30 seconds.

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Drain in ice-cold water to blanch, then remove the peels from each tomato. This will probably take a good 20 minutes.

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Put the tomatoes and garlic in a baking pan, submerge in olive oil, add the dried and fresh herbs, sea salt, and pepper. Cover in foil and bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool thoroughly, peel the garlic cloves and mash, mix with the tomatoes, then store in a jar.

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In a small pan, heat the seafood stock to just boiling. Add the saffron threads, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir together, and let simmer.

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Heat a cast-iron stovetop grill to high. Salt and pepper the tuna steaks, oil them lightly on both sides, and sear them each for 30 seconds per side.

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Place the tuna steaks on top of the shallot, garlic and fennel. Grate over the lemon zest.

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Pour over the seafood stock, check for taste and seasoning, cover and cook on low for another 5-7 minutes, until the fish is cooked through. Don’t let it overcook!

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Plate and garnish with the gorgeously red tomato confit, and maybe some black rice. It makes a stunning presentation on a plate, and better  yet, tastes delicious. Anthony, I think I did you proud!

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The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

If you’re like me and you’re as drawn to a book’s title and cover as you are the contents of the book itself, then you’ll love this one. Grady Hendrix has a knack for writing about horror against the most banal, ordinary, American backgrounds. I think of him as the literary version of the Duffer Brothers in the sense that he, like they’ve done with Stranger Things, is able to take the best tropes of horror and not only turn them upside down but put them against a backdrop of ordinary, everyday life in a timeframe so familiar to us because most of us grew up then and can recognize the cultural and societal expectations of the time.

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The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires is both satire and horror and it balances perfectly between the two. Patricia is a housewife in the mid-90s living in Charleston, in a very exclusive neighborhood called Pierates Cruze. She’s the average Southern belle turned wife/mom/daughter-in-law. Her husband is a doctor and works all the time; her two kids are teenagers and are perfectly horrible; she caretakes for her elderly, senile mother-in-law and of course, she has her group of friends who are equally boring, wealthy and proper……except they really aren’t. Well, they never are, are they?

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Their original book club fizzles out due to the sheer boringness of the books chosen by the first book club head, so Patricia, Kitty, Grace, Maryellen and Slick form their own book club in which they read true crime and horror and any manner of horrendous novels. So when James Harris moves in next door in all his scary, sexy glory and Patricia starts experiencing and seeing some very weird and frightening things, she is in the right mindset for horror. James claims to be the nephew of the awful old woman who suffers a psychotic episode and attacks Patricia, their house is overrun with vicious rats who – and this scene is not for the faint of heart (I skimmed it) – attack Patricia’s mother-in-law so viciously that she dies, and with this and some other gruesome goings-on, Patricia begins to strongly suspect the new neighbor is a vampire.

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Though the horror is intense and quite gross at times, for me the true horror was how easily Patricia is made to feel like she is crazy, how she is ostracized within her own group of friends, how her husband subjugates her, and how easy it is for her to doubt herself and question her own sanity when she knows what she has seen and when she tries to get people to realize what is going on. That was more monstrous than any vampire – that absolute lack of self-worth, lack of self-esteem, lack of any true resources of one’s own. I kept wanting to shake her and smack her upside the head to get her to realize that she did not have to allow herself to be treated the way she was.

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I like a good twist on a horror trope as much as the next girl, and Hendrix delivers. He is in that same modern group of horror novelists such as Paul Tremblay, Jason Arnopp and F.G. Cottam – and I have blogged all of them previously – who run with the horror tropes of vampires, ghosts, haunted houses, werewolves, demonic possession, home invasion and the occult – and give them new life by completely presenting them in unexpected ways. Hendrix kicks ass with this updated edition of Dracula. This vampire is meaner, grosser, way more visceral and so much more loathsome than the Count himself ever could be. This vampire still controls the mean creatures of the earth – bats, rats, bugs. This vampire is still dangerously sexy and able to entice its victims and he still needs to be invited over the threshold to enter a home……all little grace notes that I appreciated. But this vampire is the most vicious I’ve run across in modern literature and Hendrix is one hell of a visceral writer. Don’t read this while you’re eating……which I realize is ironic, considering the point of my blog. 🙂 Just don’t. Trust me on this.

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And of course, being set in the South, there is food. Lots of food, and exactly the type of food you’d expect from upper-class, wealthy Southern housewives – Boston cream pie, peach pie, any variety of casseroles, a crab boil, a massive amount of cocktails, Swedish meatballs, and of course, the inevitable party finger food consisting of cruditĂ©s, ham biscuits, pimiento cheese sandwiches and my favorite, cheese straws. You can’t have a party in the Deep South and not have cheese straws. You’d get thrown out of Tara like Scarlett O’Hara, my dear!

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The party spilled from the living room into the dining room, where it swirled in a circle around a table overflowing with miniature ham biscuits, cheese straws, pimento cheese sandwiches, and a tray of cruditĂ©s that would be thrown out untouched tomorrow morning…….

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This is the method for Southern-style cheese straws I used, based on the recipe by the late, great Edna Lewis, who is one of the great African-American chefs of the last 100 years and whose classic cookbook Taste of Country Cooking is one of my favorites.

INGREDIENTS
1 and 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into pieces
2 and 1/2 cups extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
2 tablespoons water

METHOD
Sift the flour, mustard, salt and cayenne into a medium bowl.

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Using your most awesome red Kitchen Aid with the paddle attachment, beat together the cheese and butter on low until well blended.

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Gradually mix in the flour mixture until completely incorporated, then add the water and beat for another few minutes until the dough comes together.

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Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times, then roll it out into a rough rectangle on a parchment sheet-covered baking tray, and chill about half an hour.

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Heat the oven to 425F, and trim the dough edges, cut in half, then again into strips roughly 6 inches by 1/4″, but don’t get out the ruler. Just long, skinny strips will work.

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Bake for 20 minutes, or until they’re golden-brown, crisp, and you can smell the cheese. Let cool and enjoy with soup, salad, or as a snack with your evening cocktail. Any Southern belle would surely approve!

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Alburquerque by Rudolfo Anaya

Those of you who know me know of my deep and abiding love for the books of Rudolfo Anaya. For those of you who may not have heard of him, he is a well-known New Mexico writer who wrote what many consider the seminal work of Chicano literature – Bless Me, Ultima. His work tends to focus on the lives of his fellow New Mexicans, and he has made forays into children’s literature as well. He’s written poems, essays, short stories, and plays, but it is his fictional novels that reveal his heart and soul, as well as the intense love he has for his home state and in particular, for the city where we both reside, Albuquerque.

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His novel Alburquerque – yes, you read that correctly with the extra “R” – is a love story and homage to this unique character of a city. It tells the story of Ben Chavez, a writer and professor and his connection with a young boxer named Abrán Gonzalez, but that is only part of the tale. The story takes place against the backdrop of a nasty mayoral race, and incorporates a beautiful love story between Abrán and Lucinda, an adopted boy’s search for his birth father, the spiritual beliefs and mingled faith of the Catholics of Northern New Mexico, and the unique politics of Albuquerque.

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I love this book so very much, not just because I love Rudolfo Anaya, but because it so perfectly describes my city. From the stunningly blue springtime skies to the cottonwood trees along the bosque trails that frame the Rio Grande River, from the tall buildings of Downtown to the seasonal matanzas, from the mountains of the many small towns of Northern New Mexico to the gorgeous homes of Albuquerque’s North Valley, Anaya not only knows Albuquerque inside and out, he clearly adores this city.

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The story takes place right around Easter, and rereading it, I was struck by the beautiful description of the traditional Good Friday trek to El Santuario de ChimayĂł. ChimayĂł is a tiny town about an hour and a half north of Albuquerque, and is world-famous for its church and for its holy dirt, which pilgrims take with them as a blessing. The dirt is believed to have healing powers and people come from around the world to see it. On Good Friday, devout Catholics trek on foot from surrounding towns, sometimes walking over 100 miles to show their faith and devotion. This year, due to the ongoing coronavirus emergency, the trek was cancelled. Though I am not a practicing Catholic, I understand the importance of this annual pilgrimage to the faithful, as well as the cultural identity we New Mexicans have with ChimayĂł. I pray that next year we can renew this wonderful tradition.

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Then, of course, there is the New Mexican food that is described in luscious detail by Anaya. Red chile enchiladas, tortillas, the scent of fresh green chile roasting, the tart zing of a margarita, and then there is this passage, describing the smells of food cooking as Abrán walks into the house where his mother Sara is cooking.

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Sara was up when he got home. The house was warm and welcomed him with the smell of tortillas on the comal and fresh coffee brewing. She called from the kitchen, where she was making Lenten food for Good Friday: tortillas, tortas de huevo, spinach mixed with beans and a pod of red chile, and natillas for dessert.

New Mexican Catholics have a traditional Lenten meal that we eat on Good Friday. It’s meatless, and almost always comprises salmon patties, torta de huevo with red chile,  (tortas de huevo are savory little egg cakes),  quelites (wilted spinach greens) mixed with cooked pinto beans, tortillas, and for dessert, natillas. Natillas is a delicious vanilla custard dusted with cinnamon and is very central to any New Mexican’s Lenten meal. So that’s what I made, using my own Nana Jean’s tried-and-true method. She used to make the Good Friday dinner every year, and my sister and I took up the tradition after she died. This year, sadly, we are all social distancing so no point in making all that food when we can’t be together to share it. But natillas are so delicious that I decided a bowl of them would be a good distraction from everything going on right now.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
3 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

METHOD
Mix together the whole milk, condensed milk, cornstarch and sugar over medium heat, stirring very frequently. The sugar burns easily so don’t leave it.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites and add the yolks to the milk mixture. Set aside the egg whites.

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Whisk the mixture for the first couple of minutes, so the cornstarch is better incorporated, then stir with a wooden spoon.

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Add the vanilla and cook, stirring often, until the mixture thickens into a custard. Remove from the heat.

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Whisk the egg whites on high until they form stiff peaks.

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Fold the whipped egg whites into the custard mixture in a large bowl.

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Sprinkle with cinnamon and chill overnight.

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Heavenly to taste, light and sweet but not overly so, and just completely the taste of New Mexico Eastertime!

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The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz ZafĂłn

I can’t say enough about Carlos Ruiz ZafĂłn’s writing. It’s absolutely beautiful, lyrical, lush without being overly purple, and whether describing the sensory overload of a roomful of books, the scent of tobacco, the deeply scarlet hue of a woman’s lipstick, or the existential dread and horror of torture and death, the man writes like a magician. I’ve read each of the books in the series over 10 times apiece, and I continue to find small, overlooked details in each one the more I read. The Labyrinth of the Spirits, the fourth and final book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, draws together the threads splayed out in the previous three books, brings a kind of justice to the Sempere family, and introduces the reader to a very unusual heroine, Alicia Gris.

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The basic premise of this book is the story of Alicia, born in Barcelona, how she loses her parents during the Civil War in Spain, her chameleonlike evolution from petty street criminal to police officer/spy and her connection to Barcelona, Daniel Sempere, David MartĂ­n, and FermĂ­n Romero de Torres (in my opinion, one of the funniest and most touching sidekick characters in modern literature and an obvious nod to Sancho Panza); and her connection to the marvelous and terrifying Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you’ve read the three previous books, The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel’s Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven – all of which I have previously blogged – you will know the overarching storyline. How Alicia fits into this dark Wonderland tale that pays homage to books, literature, freedom, love and mystery, is both beautiful and sad.

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I will say that my only beef with this book is how most of the women are portrayed, as either femmes fatales or saints, which is something I run across in most books where a male writer writes from a female POV. Alicia is a fascinating character. Yes, she is beautiful and somewhat damaged both physically and emotionally and she does have very complex emotions, but she isn’t a homewrecker and the reactions of other female characters to her is somewhat irritating after awhile. No, she isn’t there to steal your man, ok? She’s investigating a disappearance and looking into her own childhood history. Sheesh. I suppose it annoys me because I see so much of this in real life – this Madonna/whore outlook even from other women when they see a physically beautiful woman and automatically assume she is trouble or that she is a man-eater or a slut or all those other awful words that both men and women use to shame females for daring to look a certain way.

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As dark and painful as this book is at times, it is above else, a love letter to reading. The sheer joy of losing yourself in a book is something that every lover of literature can relate to, including me. Alicia has loved books since she was a little girl, and when she is rescued early on in the book from a bombing in Barcelona by our erstwhile FermĂ­n and accidentally falls through the glass roof of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, it completely changes her life, both physically and emotionally. Can you imagine getting lost in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books? Between the ghosts and mysterious figures that supposedly haunt its corridors, the sheer amount of books to be devoured and the romantic terror implicit in such a place, it sounds like somewhere I could happily spend eternity. With lots of good wine and Spanish tapas, of course.

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Alicia is paired with a detective named Vargas, with whom she has a strong attraction and shares a unique sense of humor. He’s a bit older than her, which is fine with me since I have always preferred older men. They have been tasked with finding Spain’s Minister of Culture, Mauricio Valls, who has mysteriously vanished and with whom the enigmatic David Martin – of The Angel’s Game – has been connected. Valls was responsible for imprisoning and torturing many people during Spain’s Civil War, including MartĂ­n, and it’s feared he has been kidnapped in retaliation. The reality, of course, is much more complex and far, far worse. Anyway, once back in Barcelona, Alicia introduces Vargas to many of her favorite haunts from her childhood and adult years living there. The Ribera quarter is home to her favorite tapas bar, appropriately called La Bombeta. There, she orders a plateful of bombas, bread with olive oil and tomatoes, and beer – a quintessential Barcelona treat.

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“Bring us four bombs and two beers,” Alicia instructed, without taking her eyes off Vargas. “Estrella or draft beer?” “Estrella.” “Bread with oil and tomato?” “A couple of slices. Toasted.” The waiter nodded and walked off without more ado………..the beers and the plate of bombas arrived just in time to interrupt the conversation. Vargas eyed that curious invention, a sort of large ball of breaded potato filled with spicy meat.

Bombas are potato balls stuffed with meat and shallow-fried, eaten hot with a cold beverage. They can be stuffed with ground beef, ground pork, chorizo, etc. I ate many of them when I was a student living in Spain, and though they are made in various iterations in different cities, the bomba is a true child of that beautiful, unique and haunting city of Barcelona. This is my take on them.

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INGREDIENTS
6 waxy potatoes
1 yellow onion, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika – also known as pimenton
1 pound uncooked chorizo
1/2 cup Spanish sherry
Salt and pepper to taste
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 cup breadcrumbs
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Cook the potatoes in boiling, salted water for 20-30 minutes until soft. Push through a potato ricer and stir to mix and break down. Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside to cool.

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Heat some olive oil in a pan and cook the onion and garlic for 10 minutes, until softened. Remove from the pan but leave the oil.

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Add the chorizo and stir, breaking it into smaller pieces, cooking it until it firms up, about 10 minutes.20200120_125638

Add the cooked onion and garlic to the meat, and sprinkle over the smoked paprika. Cook for another 10 minutes.

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Toss in the sherry and cook until the liquid evaporates, then let the meat cool and get on with your potato bombs.

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Form a large ball with the potato and put some of the chorizo-onion mixture in the middle. Close the potato over the meat so it is completely contained. Repeat until you have 6-7 bombas. Lay on a platter and chill for up to 2 hours, if not longer.

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Pour the flour and the breadcrumbs into separate bowls, and crack the egg into another bowl, mixing with a fork and some water and salt.

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Quickly dip the bomba into the egg, then the flour, then the breadcrumbs so it is completely covered, then heat about 3 cups of olive oil in a large pan and toss a small drop of water to test the heat. When the oil sizzles, it’s ready.

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In batches of 3, cook the bombas for about five minutes, until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and eat hot, garnished with roasted red peppers, and with a toast to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, the Sempere family, and the genius that is Carlos Ruiz Zafón. ¡Salud!

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

So this was a totally bizarre, engrossing and freaky ride of a book. I haven’t read anything in quite awhile that literally hooked me from the first sentence and didn’t let go. I actually checked it out at the library and got three overdue notices because I wanted to read it slowly and savor it, and then read it over again. In fact, I ended up buying it for myself as a Christmas gift and thus far have read it a total of four times. So yes, you could say I love this book!

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Bardugo is an intense writer and I love her unique style with words. Visceral, irreverent yet serious, with occasional blasts of sick humor and an absolutely fascinating murder mystery, mixed with black magic, frat boy hijinks and one of the more uniquely loveable heroines in fiction and a wonderful world of magic set against an Ivy League university setting………such a bizarre premise that of course it works.

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Alex Stern has been given a second chance, both at life having survived a gruesome multiple murder and in academia having been chosen to attend Yale on a free ride. It turns out that her lifelong ability to see the spirits of the dead – Grays, as she calls them – is the very reason she is chosen to attend this legendary Ivy League college. She is picked to oversee the magic of the eight houses at Yale, to act as a guardian against any of the black magic being noticed or misused by these houses, and in her role as “Dante,” she is part of Lethe House, the eponymous ninth house. She acts as a type of apprentice to “Virgil,” who is Daniel Arlington when he’s at home, or Darlington, as he is more familiarly known.

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When Darlington mysteriously disappears during a magic ritual and when Alex discovers the murder of a town girl and finds connections with four of the eight magical houses, she sets out on a quest to find the murderer and becomes embroiled not just in a police procedural mystery but the real, nasty, dirty reality of the type of magic being practiced at Yale. Some of the houses cast spells of manipulation and perception, some raise the dead, some work with plants to create magical potions,  some can tell the future. Alex has taken to heart Darlington’s assessment that they are “shepherds,” meant to oversee and contain the magic and to protect innocent bystanders.

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I personally love a book that does not explain everything from the get-go and that basically sets up this alternate universe and expects you to follow along and learn as you go. That’s what Bardugo does in this book. She doesn’t stop to explain how this house came into being, why their magic works, why Alex can see Grays and how Alex came to end up at Yale after a youth filled with petty drug use, stealing and living with drug dealers. Rather, you find out in subtle flashbacks and that old “suspension of disbelief.” If you can let go and follow Bardugo into the world of magical fraternities, spirits of the dead, invisible hounds that protect sacred spaces, and ghosts who can possess the living, you will so not be disappointed.

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Darlington is watched over in his position of Virgil by “Oculus,” his cook/housekeeper/research assistant who also acts as a protector and source of information about the other houses….or as her real name goes, Dawes. She and Alex initially dislike each other on site and probably on principle, but they are united in their love for Darlington and desire to get him back, and their need to understand the supernatural. Early in the book, Virgil and Dante – Darlington and Alex – return to Darlington’s private house where Oculus – Dawes – has prepared them a meal to fortify them after all the magical goings-on of the evening, to the delight of Darlington.

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Dawes slid her headphones down to her neck “We have smoked salmon and egg and dill sandwiches.” “Dare I ask?” “And avgolemono.” “I’d say you’re an angel, but you’re so much more interesting.” Dawes clucked her tongue. “It’s not really a fall soup.” “It’s barely fall and there’s nothing more fortifying.”

I’d never made avgolemono soup before, that delicious, delicate yet filling Greek soup of chicken, rice and lemon made creamy with a tempered mix of eggs gently whipped into the hot soup, but I figured it was time to give it a whirl. I was very happy and honored to be given the method from Jessica, one of my favorite Instagram posters and food bloggers, who can be found on IG at @jesswhoamamma. You won’t be disappointed in her feed. Anyway, this is her method, which she got from her beloved yia-yia (grandmother) and which I am proud to share with you now.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-lb organic chicken
1 cup white rice (I used Basmati)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 large eggs
1 large lemon
1 cup ice-cold water
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Put the chicken into a large stockpot filled with about a gallon of water. Boil for 1-2 hours, skimming fat and impurities from the surface. Once cooked, remove chicken from liquid and let cool.

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Drain the stock into a clean pot and put on to a low boil, and add the rice and the tablespoon of butter. Let cook, and once the rice is tender, remove from the heat and get on with the avgolemono.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites.

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Add juice of half the lemon and a tablespoon of ice-cold water to the egg whites, and whisk until frothy and pale.

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Whisk the egg yolks together, then add to the egg white mixture and whisk again until well combined.

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One spoonful at a time, add some hot broth to the egg mixture and whisk madly. This is called tempering the eggs, and what it does is slowly brings them to soup temperature and makes them creamy. If you put the eggs directly into the hot soup, they would cook and become scrambled eggs, and you DO NOT want that.

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After about 6 spoonfuls of hot stock being slowly added and whisked into the egg mixture, you can now pour the entire bowlful of egg mixture into the hot soup.

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Shred the chicken, remove the skin, gristle, and bones, and add the meat to the soup. Simmer very gently on low until everything is creamy and combined. Adjust seasoning and add more salt, pepper or lemon to your taste.

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Heaven! Light, rich, delicate yet substantial, with that effervescent tang of lemon, this soup is actually perfect year-round and not just in the fall. Sorry, Dawes! Darlington was right!

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