Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

This book is hilariously funny, riffing satirically on those chick-lit memoirs from the early 2000s in which a heroine ends up living abroad, usually Italy or France, renovates a house, learns to cook, falls in love, and finds herself, though not necessarily in that order.

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The book Under The Tuscan Sun is referenced often, but the other book I was reminded of was the highly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, that also detailed a woman’s “journey into self.” Gag. It was gushingly made into a film with the also highly annoying Julia Roberts and the absolutely gorgeous Javier Bardem, who is welcome to eat crackers in bed with me at any time.

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In this case, Cooking with Fernet-Branca turns the heroine into a hero, in the character of Gerald Samper, a British expatriate (and as an aside, why do we call Brits and Americans living in foreign countries “expatriates” and yet people who come here to the States or to Great Britain are referred to as “immigrants”? Food for thought……pardon the pun).

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Anyway, Gerald is a dreadful snob who ghostwrites biographies for celebrities, and loves to cook gourmand meals. The problem is, his concept of gourmet cooking is horrible. For example, he is given a bottle of Fernet-Branca by the loquacious Marta, his neighbor on the run from a Mafia crime lord. Fernet-Branca, if you’ve never had it, is a terribly bitter, herb-based liqueur much loved in Italy. Gerald proceeds to create a dessert of garlic and Fernet-Branca flavored ice cream, reveling in his own unique style of cooking.

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What makes this book so funny and satirical is that it takes all of the tropes of this chick-lit genre and holds them up so clearly to show the pure pretentiousness of all of these women who go to Italy and find themselves “under a Tuscan’s son.” (Not that there is anything wrong with finding yourself under a Tuscan’s son.) Gerald and Marta are each other’s intellectual and culinary equals, and the story is told from their dual viewpoints, giving us a glimpse of how ridiculous the other really is.

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Gerald loves to sing, horribly off-key, as he goes about renovating his Italian villa, and Marta, who is actually an Eastern European composer, begins using his dreadful songs in her own music, which is hysterical reading when Gerald also hears it and is horrified, not realizing the music and verse and voice are his own donkey-braying.

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I tried a small shot of Fernet-Branca when in Italy a few years ago, and still recall the shudder that went through me when I swallowed down the bitter, herbal hit of alcohol. It’s probably  something one could acquire a taste for, like Campari and Pernod. But even the bouquet of Fernet-Branca is vile, making one wonder exactly how it would taste in a garlic-flavored ice cream. I’m game to try if you are!

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Anyway, one of the more amusing dishes Gerald whips up are his mussels in chocolate sauce.

Mussels in chocolate. You flinch? But that’s only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.

I had absolutely no intention of making mussels cooked in chocolate. But there’s nothing wrong with making some lovely mussels in a garlic, parsley and white wine sauce, and then having a nice, decadent chocolate dessert. So that’s what I made.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous mussels recipe from the New York Times by David Tanis, one of the best cooks out there. The chocolate dessert was based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Chocohotopots from her terrific cookbook Feast, which are little baked chocolate molten cakes eaten hot and oozing chocolatey goodness straight out of the oven. The flavor tweaks in both the mussels and the chocolate pots are straight from me.

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INGREDIENTS
30 mussels
8 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 pinch cayenne
Handful fresh parsley
3/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup seafood or chicken broth
Lemon juice
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

METHOD
Buy mussels that are already cleaned, saving yourself much manual labor and irritation. Sort and rinse them well, going by that old rule of thumb to throw away any raw mussels that are open.

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Add the garlic, shallot and cayenne in some olive oil in a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven on your stovetop. Put a sprinkle of sea salt on top, and cook about 10 minutes, until the garlic and shallot are sizzling and have softened.

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Put the cleaned mussels into the pan and stir, to get all the flavors combined. Add the wine, clam juice, and broth, stir again, and put the lid on, so the mussels can steam. Stir after 2 minutes, then cover again and let cook another good 15 minutes.

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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Make sure the mussels have all opened wide in the steam. If any remain closed, throw them away. Remove pan from heat, and then add the beaten egg to the half-and-half, mix together, and stir into the hot mussels in the pan. It makes for a nice, slightly creamy but not heavy, sauce.

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Decant the mussels into bowls, sprinkle with lots of parsley, and serve with nice, buttered baguette slices, which are useful for soaking up the fantastic mussel sauce.

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If you still have room in your tummy, eat the delectable chocolate pudding cake, which is simply 4 ounces of melted, good-quality dark chocolate and 1 stick of unsalted butter also melted, mixed together with 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon almond extract, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of regular flour, then poured into buttered ramekins and baked at 400F for 20 minutes, and eaten hot. Sooooooo good, and nary a a mussel to be found in the chocolate!

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I didn’t actually read this book when I was a kid, but since it’s ostensibly a kid’s book that weirded me out having read it as an adult, I think it fits snugly into my own Halloween canon this year. Coraline is just plain creepy. It hits a nerve for any kid, me included, who grew up wishing they had different parents. Well, that’s all of us, isn’t it?

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Coraline is a typical kid. She has quite an imagination and loves to wander off and find adventures. In fact, it’s her search for adventure in her new house that leads her to find the other side. Coraline is essentially ignored by her parents, which as an adult is somewhat understandable. As a kid, to simply want your parents to pay attention to you, to be “normal,” is an essential part of every kid’s experience growing up. Some parents are better than others. Coraline’s are not. They aren’t mean or abusive, nor do they neglect her in a bad way. They are simply wrapped up in their own lives, their own careers, their own interests and they seem to have forgotten that they have a kid who needs some feedback and attention.

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So when Coraline goes exploring and discovers the other house and the Other Mother and Other Father, who welcome her with such happiness and joy and wonderful home cooking and her own bedroom filled with magical toys and the promise that she can stay with them forever if she wants to, it’s no wonder she is tempted.

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What the underlying theme in this film is is bravery. Coraline is a brave kid, taking on a terrifying task of finding the souls of the three children whom the Other Mother has already taken, and possibly losing her own in the process.  The Other Mother is truly frightening. She has black button eyes and seems to know the deepest parts of Coraline’s mind and soul, anticipating Coraline’s moves when Coraline tries to find and release the souls of the other children trapped there. But it’s tempting for Coraline as well, because the Other Mother promises something Coraline doesn’t get from her parents – normalcy and attention. The fact that the Other Mother also does what any dream mother would do – cook a kid’s absolute favorite foods – is another mark in her favor since in her regular world, her real father cooks all this horrible gourmet food when he should realize that Coraline only wants microwaved food, like any regular kid. 🙂

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Coraline’s father stopped working and made them all dinner. Coraline was disgusted. “Daddy,” she said, “you’ve made a recipe again.” “It’s leek and potato stew, with a tarragon garnish and melted Gruyere cheese,” he admitted. Coraline sighed. Then she went to the freezer and got out some microwave chips and a microwave pizza.”

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Well, I don’t know about Coraline but to me, potato and leek soup with Gruyere and tarragon sound absolutely delicious, and perfect to make as the late summer weather changes to cool autumn temperatures. So that’s what I made. (Obligatory shot of my dog included, just because she’s cute.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons butter
3 leeks, well cleaned and trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 leeks, trimmed and well washed
1 carton chicken broth
1/2 bottle white wine
1 tablespoon fresh chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon
3 tablespoons grated Gruyere cheese

METHOD
Melt the butter in a large pan. Slice the leeks into rounds and add to the butter. Let saute for about 5 minutes.

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Finely mince the garlic and the tarragon and add both to the leeks in the pan. Let them cook together for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a dash or two of sea salt.

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Cube the peeled potatoes and add to the leeks, tarragon, and garlic. Stir around to cover with the butter.

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Add the dried thyme, pour over the chicken broth and the white wine, cover and let simmer for 45 minutes, until the potatoes have completely softened.

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Bust out the fabulous stick blender and blend until everything is smooth and velvety and unctuous.

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Add in the grated Gruyere cheese and stir to mix and melt. Let simmer a few more minutes, tasting for seasoning.

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Decant into soup bowls and garnish with some more fresh tarragon. The licorice hint from the tarragon is a perfect contrast to the starchy potatoes and rich cheese. So delicious! I think it might even convince Coraline to try it!

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Rio Grande Fall by Rudolfo Anaya

If you’ve been following my blog since it started, you’ll know of my deep and abiding love for the literary works of Rudolfo Anaya. A native of my home state of New Mexico, he was one of the first writers to gain national and worldwide attention for his books set here in the Land of Enchantment. His writings embody the experience of growing up Hispanic in New Mexico, growing up in a small town with not very much money, growing up in a world that is rapidly changing from agricultural to industrial, growing up in a world that straddles both the corporeal and the spiritual.

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Rio Grande Fall walks this line between the material world and that of the spirits that surround us here in our beautiful, dysfunctional but always magical state of New Mexico. The second in a series of four books by Anaya titled on the seasons of the year and all following the story of Elfego “Sonny” Baca, a private investigator with quite the track record of cracking cases and hooking up with women, this book continues the story from the first book Zia Summer, in which Sonny is tracking a cult leader and murderer called Raven, who is what we call a brujo here – a witch working dark magic.

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The charm of these books is that they exemplify life in New Mexico as told from the point of view of a native resident, not a transplant, and that’s why I can relate so much to the books of Anaya. He doesn’t promote the same tired literary tropes about the Southwest that so many non-native writers do. I love our Native American culture but my God, it’s been done to death in books and TV and movies. I like the focus on the other people who make up the beautiful and varied tapestry that is the people of our state – this Hispanics who are descended from Spanish soldiers and indigenous women of Mexico whose whose unique history, genetics, religion and culture have made us the hard-working, fun-loving, resilient, difficult and amazing raza we are today.

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Sonny Baca lives in the North Valley in Albuquerque, in the shadow of massive cottonwood trees, in proximity to his beloved elderly neighbor Don Eliseo and Don Eliseo’s friends Don Toto and Doña Concha. For those of you not familiar with New Mexico culture, the title of “Don” or “Doña” is honorary, given to an elder whose knowledge, influence and connections made he or she a powerful member of the community. Similar to how Vito Corleone was referred to as “Don Corleone” in the Godfather books and movies, so here you have that same concept.

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Don Eliseo is a powerful influence in Sonny’s life, representing the light side of his soul as Raven represents the dark, negative energy that is also part of Sonny’s makeup. And Sonny’s connection with his elderly neighbors also emphasizes the respect, love and honor the majority of New Mexico Hispanics hold for their senior citizens. They are the ones with our history, our story, and our souls and when they are gone, a major piece of our cultural identity goes with them.

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This scene is classic New Mexico in the autumn, when people are roasting green chile outside, drinking beer or wine, and essentially turning it into a party.

Don Eliseo and his two friends were busy in the front yard when Sonny drove up. He and Doña Concha and Don Toto were roasting a basketful of green chile that Don Eliseo grew in his field by the house. Don Eliseo slowly and methodically placed the shapely green peppers on the grill, turned each one with care, and when the thin skin was brown and roasted, he picked up the chile and tossed it in a pan. Don Toto’s job was to make sure the just-roasted chiles were kept covered with a wet towel and steaming, thus making the skin easier to peel off. He also kept the wineglasses full of his own vintage, a North Valley wine that came from vines his family had cultivated since the seventeenth century.

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Fall is chile season here in New Mexico, and the smell of it roasting at farmers markets, growers markets and grocery stores is an integral part of the changing of the season. In fact, October is also when the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta takes place, so oftentimes you’ll be out walking or opening your door to greet the morning, and be hit with a gorgeous scent of roasting green chile while watching hot-air balloons float serenely overhead against a backdrop of the stunningly blue New Mexico sky……..and you will know that autumn has arrived. Green chile is marvelously versatile, and I thought I’d make a classic fall dish of chicken pot pie and add that spicy twist of roasted green chile and other traditional fall vegetables, in homage to Sonny Baca and Don Eliseo, who would surely approve.

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INGREDIENTS
Two good-quality, store-bought pie crusts (you can make your own but why give yourself more work?)
5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter
1 green zucchini, cubed
1 red bell pepper, deseeded and cubed
1 can corn, drained and rinsed
2 generous tablespoons dried garlic powder
5 New Mexico green chile peppers, preferably Big Jim
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup full-fat milk
1/2 cup chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 425F, and poach the chicken thighs in water or store-bought chicken broth, then cool and shred. Set aside.

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In a large skillet, heat the oil and butter, sprinkle over the garlic powder, and saute the squash and bell pepper about 10 minutes.

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Add the corn and stir until warm, then pour into the bowl with the shredded chicken and mix well. Set aside and save the oil in the skillet.

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If you have a gas stove, turn on the two front hobs and lay two chiles on top of each. The idea is to roast and blister them on each side, turning frequently until the entire chile is blackened and roasted. Use tongs so you don’t burn your fingers. NOTE: this is a very old-school method of roasting green chile. Most people do it in the oven under the broiler, on an outdoor grill, or in a toaster oven, but I like to live dangerously and do it the way my grandfather taught me – stovetop!

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Turn the chiles as you roast them, so that each side gets blackened and that spicy smell wafts out at you. Put into a large plastic bag, seal it and cover with a tea towel. The idea here is that the skins will steam off. Leave for up to 20 minutes.

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Remove the chile from the plastic bag, slide off the skins, then cut off the stems and remove as many seeds as possible.

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Chop up the roasted chile, season with salt and garlic powder, and mix with the chicken and vegetables. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

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Heat some butter in the same skillet you used for the vegetables, and when melted, add the flour and stir until it melts into the butter and browns a bit. Gradually add the milk and keep whisking, to form a roux. Simmer over medium heat until it thickens.

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Lay out one of the pie crusts and add in the chicken-vegetable-chile mixture, then pour over the hot roux.

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Cover with the other pie crust, crimping the edges to sea, and cutting some slits in the top for steam to escape.

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Bake for 30 minutes, until the pie crust gets golden brown and you can smell all those wonderful savory scents. Allow to cool 10-15 minutes before cutting into it and enjoying your slice of New Mexico heaven on a plate!

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Ode to Tomatoes (A Poem) by Pablo Neruda

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been big on poetry. The rhythm and meters necessary to appropriately read poems just bog me down. I love hearing poetry read by someone who understands how it should be enunciated, but when I try to read poetry, either in my head or out loud, I sound like an idiot. Well, with the exception of the poems of Pablo Neruda.

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Neruda is my favorite poet in all the world. He writes in a sensual, lyrical rhythm that is a gorgeous combination of the magical realism so common in Latin American writing, and a pure, romantic worldview centered around love. His arguable masterpiece of love poetry is his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, though I personally love Cien sonetos de amor (100 Love Sonnets). Cien sonetos, in my humble opinion, is probably one of the most beautiful and erotic collections of poetry in the world, mature and beautiful and quite sensual. I highly recommend you read them if you haven’t already.

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As much a political figure as a poet, Neruda was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in Chile. His poetry was considered beautiful, avant-garde, and at times, very subversive to the repressive government in his home country. Highly respected as both a writer and a political figure, he traveled extensively throughout the world, both as a diplomat and after he was forced into exile by after Chile outlawed Communism. A believer in pure Communist ideals, he was associated such other exalted revolutionaries as Garcia Lorca, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Allende. It is believed he was killed by the Pinochet government, which he had fervently criticized. Proof that words can be as powerful as any other weapon, if used correctly.

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Though I adore Neruda’s love sonnets, the Odes he wrote in homage to everyday, normal items such as food, are my absolute favorites. He wrote odes using these mundane objects as personification of the human experience. Odes to a tuna he saw in the marketplace, golden lemons, pearly onions, jade-green artichokes, ruby and topaz-colored wine, and tomatoes, comparing the crimson flesh of the tomato to the bleeding and suffering of mankind, but also finding the sheer joy in these common foods.

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Being both a reader and an avid cook, I’ve always found his odes to food so filled with pleasure and sensuality. It’s interesting that Neruda is as comfortable detailing his political beliefs in a logical manner as he is describing the eroticism of kissing his lover or the joys of drinking wine or eating a tomato.

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The street
filled with tomatoes,
midday,
summer,
light is halved like
a
tomato,
its juice runs
through the streets.
In December,
unabated,
the tomato
invades
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
takes
its ease
on countertops,
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among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
sinks
into living flesh,
red
viscera
a cool
sun,
profound,
inexhaustible,
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
we
pour
oil,
essential
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
pepper
adds
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding of the day,
parsley hoists its flag,

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potatoes bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
knocks at the door,
it’s time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent and fertile star,
displays
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

Isn’t that just beautiful? In honor of this magnificent poet, I decided to create an homage meal that incorporated tuna, onion, lemon, tomatoes, artichoke, and of course, wine. This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous recipe from Beauty and the Foodie, creating tuna-stuffed tomatoes alongside lemon-steamed artichokes and a beautiful, garnet-hued Chilean wine. I do think Neruda would approve wholeheartedly of this meal created in his honor.

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INGREDIENTS
2 large, ripe tomatoes
1-6 ounce can of good-quality tuna, drained and flaked
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 red onion, finely minced
1/2 celery rib, finely minced
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1/2 tablespoon Italian parsley, finely minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper
2 slices cheddar cheese
METHOD
Pre-heat your oven to 400F and spray a baking sheet with olive oil spray. While the oven heats, saute the diced onion in a bit of olive oil and salt, just until it’s translucent.
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While the onion is cooling, cut the tops of the tomatoes off about 1/3 from the top. Scoop out the seeds and pulpy juices, saving some.
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Drain the tomato halves upside down on a plate while you prepare the tuna salad. Mix the now-cooled onion with the flaked tuna, the celery and parsley, the tomato seeds and the lemon juice.
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 Add in the mayonnaise and mustard, and season with salt and pepper.
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Fill each tomato half with the tuna mixture, and top with a slice of cheddar cheese.
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Bake for 15 minutes, or until you see the cheese getting meltingly golden.
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While the tomatoes are roasting, boil two trimmed and stemmed artichokes in salted, lemony water for 15 minutes. Drain and allow to steam for another 5-10 minutes. Melt some butter and lemon juice in a bowl, and season with salt.
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Serve the luscious, meltingly good stuffed tomatoes on a platter with an artichoke, and with a lovely glass of Chilean wine, and enjoy the visual poetry of this ode to good food.
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The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I’m a bore on the topic of books vs. films, as I’ve been told many times, and I’d have to agree. Don’t get me started on whether the film version is better than the book, because I will wax poetic for a good hour or two about the merits of the book and how the book is ALWAYS better than the film. However, I must come clean and shamefacedly admit that I have never in my life read Mario Puzo’s masterpiece The Godfather. Until now, that is.

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I’ve seen the film, of course. Like 30 times. Possibly more. I own the trilogy, for God’s sake. I can quote the movie nearly line-by-line (another reason not to watch movies with me because I will irritate the shit out of you by doing that) and I will gladly debate the merits of that much-maligned film The Godfather III, because I personally think it has many hidden gems within it. Just try to ignore Sofia Coppola’s performance and give her a break…..she was young and there are worse actresses in the world.

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Unless you live under a rock, you know the storyline. The Corleone family patriarch, Vito, runs a crime syndicate in 1950s New York. He has three sons, Santino (Sonny), Frederico (Fredo), and Michael, and a daughter, Constanza (Connie.) All are very different, and Sonny is expected to take over the family business, but when he is executed Mafia-style and when Vito Corleone has an attempt made on his life, Michael takes over, becomes the Don and is far more cold and ruthless than his father ever could be.

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I was surprised at how removed the narration of the book was, though. It’s told from the third-person, but even from that remove, it is a very cold and clinically written book of a passionate family. The dichotomy was odd, though it worked extremely well because when you read the scenes of violence, murder, etc., the emotional remove makes them much more powerful. I was also surprised at how Michael’s Sicilian wife, Apolonia, was portrayed. In the film, she has very much a personality, flirtatious and passionate and quite funny, actually. In the book, she really isn’t given much character at all, beyond being this gorgeous, sexual creature that Michael falls passionately in love with and must possess, until she is, of course, killed in the car explosion meant for him.’

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In terms of food, I had initially planned to recreate the scene where Clemenza teaches Michael to make  homemade ragú sauce when Michael is in hiding before killing Sollozzo and McCluskey, frying the garlic, etc. It’s a classic food scene and I love nothing more than making tomato sauces because it’s so relaxing. But I then I read the scene where a pregnant Connie cooks a meal of veal with peppers for her dickwad husband Carlo, and when he tells her to fuck off, she loses her temper, smashes the dishes on the table, and he proceeds to beat the living hell out of her.

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“I’m not hungry yet,” he said, still reading the racing form. “It’s on the table,” Connie said stubbornly. “Stick it up your ass,” Carlo said. He drank off the rest of the whiskey in the water glass, tilted the bottle to fill it again. He paid no more attention to her. Connie went into the kitchen, picked up the plates filled with food and smashed them……..the loud crashes brought Carlo in from the bedroom. He looked at the greasy veal and peppers splattered all over the kitchen walls and his finicky neatness was outraged. “You filthy guinea spoiled brat……clean that up right now or I’ll kick the shit out of you.” And he does, using a belt and his fists.

Pretty awful, both in the book and the film clip above, but it did start me thinking about veal. I had never made veal saltimbocca and this seemed like an excellent way to honor the Corleone family. This method comes from the legendary Anna del Conte’s book Gastronomy of Italy, which in my opinion, is like the Bible of contemporary Italian cooking. Her method does involve making the veal into little rolls, or involtini, so my friend Luca Marchiori says these should be called vitello involtino.

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INGREDIENTS
10 thin veal veal cutlets
10 slices prosciutto
10 fresh sage leaves
1/2 cup flour, for dusting the veal
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup white wine

METHOD
Lay out the veal cutlets on a flat surface.

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Place a strip of prosciutto and one sage leave atop each piece of meat.

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Roll up each veal cutlet and secure  with a toothpick to hold its shape.

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Mix salt and pepper into the flour, and dredge each veal roll in the seasoned flour.

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In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil and melt the butter in it, and when hot and bubbly, add in five of the veal rolls, browning on each side. I estimate it was roughly 5 minute per side. Don’t crowd the frying pan because they won’t brown and your lovely $25.00 veal cutlets will have gone to waste. I’m too cheap to want that.

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Let cool and fry the other five rolls.

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Remove the last rolls from the still-hot pan, and pour in the white wine, whisking and letting it bubble until it thickens into a lovely, syrupy reduction sauce, about 10 minutes. Pour over the veal rolls. The smell is amazing!

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Et voila! Veal saltimbocca, or as my friend Luca Marchiori suggested, vitelli involtini since they are rolled. Whatever. They are absolutely, mouth-wateringly delicious!

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Serve with some lovely, buttery polenta and roasted red bell peppers….hence, veal and peppers! Just don’t throw the food across the room a la Connie Corleone.

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The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett

I admit to having been a Grail fan since I read Le Morte d’Arthur many years ago. The romance of the Arthurian legend combined with the mysticism of the Cup of Christ is the ultimate story, isn’t it? King Arthur courting Guinevere, Sir Lancelot falling in love with Guinevere and his relationship with Elaine, Arthur’s incestuous liaison with Morgan le Fay and the birth of their son Mordred, Sir Galahad going off in search of the Grail itself……..this is the stuff of fairy tales combined with some arguable historical figures so of course it’s compelling reading!

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When I read The Mists of Avalon, it was eye-opening because it presented the tale from a completely different perspective that embodied female power and juxtaposed Christianity taking over the pagan religions of ancient Britain in a fascinating way. In addition to Monty Python, though, the film that always fascinated me with regard to the Grail was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.which remains a favorite to this day, particularly the scene toward the end when Indy finds the knight in the chamber surrounded by cups and chalices and glasses and vessels. That scene perfectly embodied the mysterious and ethereal nature of the Grail……..especially when it is pointed out that the cup of Christ would not be made of gold. Well, duh, but I had never thought about it that way before, having been entrenched in the rituals of the Catholic church and the typical Communion wine goblet.

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This book, The Lost Book of the Grail, adds a nice twist to the traditional tropes of Grail lore. The protagonist, Arthur Prescott, is endearingly old fashioned and nerdy, teaching at the University of Barchester Cathedral, a nice little meta-nod to the fictional town of Barchester as satirically created by the late Anthony Trollope. He loves books and hates the modern world, having been raised on the mythology of King Arthur and the Grail. His own grandfather has planted the seed that the Holy Grail itself may be hidden somewhere in Barchester and that colors his perception of his own life there.

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A young lady named Bethany comes to Barchester, intent on digitizing the ancient books in the Barchester Cathedral library and as much as Arthur is drawn to her, he shies away from her modern outlook on books and literature. But she is also an amateur Grail sleuth, and before long, they are on the trail of the legendary Cup of Christ and the origins of the ancient St. Ewolda, whose story interweaves with the Grail in a really wonderful and unusual way. And of course, one  thing Arthur loves is walking with the female Dean of the Cathedral, Gwyn Bowen, and her two dogs, each morning and debating various issues tying in with life, literature and often, food.  Gwyn needles him about his dislike for a colleague, whom Arthur has just compared to a cheese.

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“I thought we were talking about the Gorgonzola, said Arthur with disdain. “Don’t you care for Gorgonzola, Mr. Prescott?” said the dean, and they spent the rest of their walk debating the relative merits of English, French and Italian cheeses.

So of course, I had to make something with Gorgonzola, which in my opinion, is the King, the Queen and the Empress of all the cheeses in the world. A dish of farfalle pasta enhanced with Gorgonzola, butternut squash and pancetta sounded mouth-watering, so that’s what I made.

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INGREDIENTS:
1 lb farfalle pasta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, diced
1 shallot, diced
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 cup pasta water
1 cup Gorgonzola crumbles
salt and pepper to taste

METHOD:
Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente, drain and reserve a cupful of the pasta water. Set both aside. (NOTE: this is a stock photo of farfalle pasta as I forgot to get a shot of the drained, cooked pasta.)

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In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat, and sauté the garlic, shallot, and sliced-up pancetta until the veggies are soft and pancetta is crispy, roughly 10-12 minutes.

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Add the butternut squash, season with salt and pepper, and sauté another 10 minutes. You want the squash softened but not mushy.

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Pour in the white wine and stir together. Let simmer for about 5 minutes.

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Add in the drained pasta and pour over some of the pasta cooking water. Stir again and warm over low heat.

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Sprinkle the cheese over the pasta and squash mixture, pasta and stir until just combined, then taste for seasoning. The Gorgonzola is marvelously sharp and salty, so you likely will not need any additional salt, and the pasta water makes the sauce lovely and creamy.

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This is a rich and delicious pasta dish, one that you don’t want to have on a regular basis but rather, once in a blue moon when you want to indulge and enjoy something unique and rare……rather like the Grail itself!

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The Investigative Paranormal Society Cookbook by Charles French

French has a wonderful blog – here’s the link – that I follow and enjoy so very much, in addition to his first book Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society, which I blogged about last year. The book is the story of three older gentlemen who form a paranormal group and go ghost-hunting, only to find that there are spirits and specters more terrifying in life and death than they ever would have thought possible. They do battle with the titular character Maledicus, a wonderfully evil and thoroughly nasty and despicable spirit who was just as bad when he was alive, and it is overall a wonderful, fast-paced and adventuresome book.

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Being a book and food aficionado and having combined these two in my own blog, I was very pleased with the number of cooking and foodie references in Maledicus, and was happy to see that Charles French had decided to pay homage to his characters and their love of food and create this cookbook filled with delicious recipes from the characters in the book. What I like about French’s characters is that they are all so different and yet have the same love of cooking, though they all create different types of cuisine based on their own lifestyles, backgrounds, and abilities. The main character, Roosevelt Franklin, is a widower whose wife Sarah passed away. She was quite the gourmet cook, often making him lots of delectable meals that he would never attempt after her death, missing her so terribly as he does. It’s odd, because although Sarah is dead, she is as much a character in death as anyone else in the book.

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This marvelous little cookbook has such culinary delights as Carrot Cake, Grape and Walnut Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing, Chicken Parmigiana, Quiche Lorraine, and other yumminess, all made by the various other characters in the book. Two main characters and the other two original members of the Investigative Paranormal Society, Jeremy Roche and Sam Sadlowski, are also quite good cooks in their own ways, though rather different in their methods. Jeremy is much more refined than Sam, who’s a retired police officer and whose tastes run to the Hungarian classics of his own family background. Two of the recipes I most wanted to try in this book are both Sam’s.

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I limit my carbohydrate intake most of the time, so I decided to make Sam’s Hungarian Green Beans and Chicken Paprikash, omitting the noodles or rice that traditionally go with this type of dish, and the green beans provided a very nice contrast. The only things I did differently were to add some lemon and more salt to the green beans and cut down the sour cream and heavy cream somewhat to make it lighter; and to use red bell peppers and smoked paprika for the Chicken Paprikash, simply because I prefer their flavors instead.

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INGREDIENTS
For the Chicken Paprikash:
2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, preferably organic
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded and chopped into long slices
2 onions, peeled and diced
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
2 14-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 cups sour cream

For the Hungarian Green Beans:
2 lbs fresh green beans, trimmed
1 large onion, sliced
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1/4 cup paprika
1 generous tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Poach the chicken for 10 minutes, then pat dry, before shredding.

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In a dutch oven, heat the olive oil and add half the smoked paprika so that the oil looks red, and saute the vegetables for 10 minutes.

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Add the canned tomatoes, a dash of salt and pepper, and stir again to mix. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed with more paprika, salt or pepper.

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Add the chicken chunks, cover and simmer on low for up to 2 hours.

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After 1 and 1/2 hours, add in the sour cream and taste again. Let heat, but don’t let the cream curdle.

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During the last half-hour of the Paprikash’s cooking, par-boil the green beans for two minutes in salted water, then immediately blanch in ice water. You want them still a bit crunchy and with their green color intact.

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Saute the onion in a bit of oil and some salt, until softened and slightly starting to caramelize. Just keep an eye on it and keep stirring.

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Mix together the heavy cream, the sour cream and the paprika, and add in the cooled green beans.

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Add in the sauteed onions and the paprika, stir to mix well, and taste. Add the lemon juice here as well as the salt and pepper, and taste. Adjust seasoning as needed. NOTE: this is rather bland so I would recommend more salt and more lemon, for certain.

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Serve together, and enjoy with a nice, full-bodied red wine like Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, and toast the culinary genius of Sam Sadlowski! And a most sincere thank-you to Charles F. French, who created these wonderful characters and recipes. Check out his blog and give the man some love and kudos! And a huge thank you to Charles French for writing this wonderful cookbook and giving me much more cooking inspiration! If you get a chance, head over to his awesome blog and show him and his writing some extra love and attention!

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Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind

I don’t know about you, but I have an incredibly developed sense of smell. Annoyingly so at times, because I can pick out the scent of body odor from 50 feet away. My sister always tells me I have the “nose from hell” and there are times when it feels like hell to be able to smell so intensely. However, the flip side is that I can also smell wonderful, heavenly scents from miles off, like someone brewing fresh coffee, the scent of someone baking a few streets away, the difference in wine bouquets (and if the wine has turned and become oxidized) and many other smells that make up daily life.

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If you think about scent, it’s perhaps the most immediate and visceral when it comes to memory association. I smell certain scents, certain perfumes or colognes, and I am immediately transported to certain places in my past. Smell can be considered a type of defense mechanism when it comes to food because if we can’t visually determine if something is “off,” one good whiff of it can keep us from food poisoning. So can you imagine either not having any sense of smell, or in this case, having the most intense sense of smell ever?

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Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is the anti-hero of this book, born in a fishmonger’s market in Paris in the mid 1700s. (Can you get more French than that?) He is ordinary in every way other than the fact that he has no scent to him whatsoever but he has an abnormally developed sense of smell, so intense in fact that he is able to discern the individual scents of people as well as objects. He becomes a perfumer, working for various powerful people as he develops his own obsession in creating the ultimate scent.

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The kicker? He must kill the people who emit the scents that he finds so enticing and irresistible. Of course, they mainly tend to be young virgins because their scent is so pure to him that he must have it. So begins his career as a murderer in tandem with creating perfumes to sell to the public. His scent obsession is creepily psychosexual as he deeply inhales every single part of the women he kills, including their genitalia.

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Grenouille is so talented at creating scents that he is able to create the scent of anonymity, so that he is able to navigate the world around him, picking out the scents of virginal young women and murdering them to keep their scent, without being noticed. He is eventually so inconspicuous that people who normally wouldn’t give away their own breath have no problem giving him everything he needs or wants.

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Once they caught a whiff of him, the market women filled his pockets with nuts and dried pears because he seemed to them so hungry and helpless. And the butcher’s wife, an implacably callous old hag if there ever was one, let him pick……

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Of course, Grenouille gets his come-uppance in the end, after he’s arrested and purposely emits a scent he’s created that not only makes everyone adore him and have a major orgy in the streets outside his prison cell, but in the end, he is literally consumed by his scent. I won’t go into detail but it’s pretty intense and fairly visceral. This pear and walnut tart should provide a nice offset to his ultimate end.

INGREDIENTS
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 cup toasted walnuts, divided
Pinch of sea salt
7 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
1 and 1/4 cups flour plus two tablespoons
2 eggs, one separated out by yolk and white
2 tablespoons softened butter
1/4 cup brandy or orange liqueur
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 medium sized Bosc pears

METHOD
Mix half the sugar, half the toasted walnuts and salt in a food chopper and process until you have a flour-like texture.

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In the bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid and using the pastry hook attachment, add the flour, the sugar-walnut mixture, and mix together, gradually adding in one butter cube at a time until a rubbly dough forms.

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Add in the yolks and mix again, scraping the sides as needed, until a ball of dough forms. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it.

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Heat the oven to 400F and press the dough into each mini tart pan. Mine are non-stick with removable bottoms, which makes life so much easier.

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Line each tart crust with foil and add some lentils or beans or baking weights to each and blind-bake for 15 minutes, then let cool. (NOTE: Don’t forget to line with foil like I did, dummy that I am. I spent 15 minutes picking lentils out of the blind-baked crust. Yes, I’m a moron at times.)

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Mix together the other half of the walnuts and sugar in the food chopper, until you have a coarse texture, then add in the butter, egg, flour, and salt and mix again until smooth.

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Slice the pears lengthwise and put in a large bowl with the sugar, brandy and lemon juice for about 15-20 minutes, until the pears start to release their juice. Drain.

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Spread the walnut filling into each tart pan.

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Arrange sliced pears over the walnut filling in each pan so they overlap. As I’ve said before, I am the world’s worst cake decorator and we can include tarts in that category. But hey, at least you know mine are homemade, right?

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Put a small sprig of rosemary on each tart, arrange the tarts on a baking sheet and bake until golden, around 30 minutes.

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Once completely cool, push each tart out of the pan from the bottom and serve. The smell of toasted nuts and baked pears spiked with rosemary is out of this world, and likely would invoke the murderous instincts of Grenouille.

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The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

If I could have any set of books with me on a desert island, I’d choose the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the Johannes Cabal books by Jonathan L. Howard, and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by the one and only Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This mysterious, lyrical, dark and yet oddly uplifting series, set in Barcelona before, during and after their bloody Civil War, sucked me in from the first two books The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, and the third one, The Prisoner of Heaven, is just as enthralling.

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Here, we pick up the threads of Daniel Sempere, the protagonist from the first book. He is married, has a baby boy, is running his family bookstore, and continues his friendship with the jester-like Fermin Romero de Torres, who is one of the funniest characters in literature. Fermin is a hoot!

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The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book centering around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, but if you haven’t read the other two novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, (both of which I have previously blogged) don’t let that stop you from picking this one up – because you see, Zafón has done something brilliant and perfectly fitting with these books. You can start with any book and read them in any order, and they all remain connected through this one, single, perfect place. In this book the story of Fermin Romero de Torres is detailed out piece by fascinating piece, and Daniel is given more information on the history of his parents. The relationship between Daniel and Bea is also in question – and references to both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game crop up throughout the book in, sometimes, the most surprising of places.

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You can also clearly see Ruiz Zafón’s love for the works of Dumas and in particular, The Count of Monte Cristo. I mean, a secret prisoner, a Gothically dark and unbearable prison, the oddly beautiful way he describes dirt and corruption, making these otherwise revolting elements such a strong part of the overall narrative. Dumas seems to exert a non-stop fascination for modern writers in the Gothic tradition, which makes sense if you think about it. Secret passages, secret identities, secret loves……..all those literary elements that hook us and fascinate us still.

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However, the darkness that seems to live around every corner in post-war Barcelona is well on display here. Barcelona herself is as much a character in this book as anyone else, both the inherent beauty and mystery of this city, as well as its moody darkness and the gorgeous and run-down amusement park atop Mount Tibidabo, which featured prominently in both previous books and is still a huge part of the overall framework here. I can’t imagine these books taking place in any other place in the world, so strongly do they connect to the seedy, dark, violent and beautiful metropolis that is Barcelona.

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There are not too many food references in this book, but that’s ok because I was inspired by one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman. His method for making that classic Spanish dish huevos a la flamenco, or flamenco-style eggs, is so yum that I had to recreate it in honor of Fermin’s eternal love of serrano ham. The nice thing about this particular method is that you can scale it up or down depending on how many people you’re serving, with the ratio of 1-2 eggs per person.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup cubed ham, Serrano preferably but use whatever you can find
1/2 cup chorizo
1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
4 eggs
1/2 cup cooked green peas (use frozen bagged ones here)
4-6 strips roasted red peppers, from a jar
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 415F, and in a cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil and toss in the ham and chorizo. Cook until nicely browned.

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Chop up the tomatoes and line the bottom of four oven-safe ramekins with them.

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Spoon in the cooked ham and chorizo.

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Crack an egg over the tomatoes and meat mixture and season lightly with salt and pepper.

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Toss a spoonful of peas over each egg yolk.

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Add 3-4 strips of roasted red pepper on top of the peas.

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Bake for 15 minutes, or until the egg whites have set but the yolk is still a bit runny, because you need that unctuous golden ooziness to make this dish truly fantastic.

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Allow to cool while you toast some bread – we had green chile cheddar bagels –  and serve, dipping your bread into the nice, gooey egg yolk as you go. So delicious and quintessentially Spanish. ¡Olé!

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I ran across this weird and engaging book of short stories at a yard sale a few weekends back, and of course, the unusual title Vampires in the Lemon Grove caught my eye. Well, as a former Goth chick who loves all things dark, supernatural, creepy and eerie, anything with “vampire” in the title is likely going to be something I immediately want to investigate.

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A book of eight short stories featuring elements of the bizarre, weird and supernatural, but in very unexpected way, the title tale features a very unusual and supernatural (though not frighteningly so) story of a marriage between two ancient vampires, Clyde and Magreb, who have found themselves living their rather mundane marital life in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, where Clyde sits on a bench, watches the tourists go by and ogles the Bay of Naples, befriends a strange Goth chick and ponders the life he and Magreb have led to this point.

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In many ways, the supernatural element of their being vampires is secondary, as their marriage mirrors any in modern times, questioning if that person still loves you after so many years together, the nature of love vs. companionship, and finding new and unique things – in this case, different drinks to slake their thirst – as a sort of parallel to their marriage in which they seek the new and the unusual to keep them engaged and entertained even as they alternately turn away from, and back towards, each other.

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You see, these two blood-drinking vampires have globe-trotted and traversed the continent, sucking the juice straight from the apple, sipping mint tea, cherry Coke floats, jacka’s milk, and in Clyde’s words, a thousand beverages that claim to have magical, thirst-quenching properties, in an effort to sate their never-ending lust for drinking blood. Oddly enough, when they find themselves drinking a pitcher of tart lemonade in the grove of Santa Francesca in Sorrento, once a Jesuit stronghold and now a touristy, overpriced lemon grove, they decide that lemons will be their tipple of choice going forward. So they proceed to settle in Sorrento and suck dry a good half-dozen lemons each per day.

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Honestly though, I only read the eponymous first story and the meandering prose lost me after awhile. I enjoyed reading about the vampiric evolution of a marriage and the luscious lemon groves of Amalfi but Russell, though a beautiful handler of the English language, really doesn’t know how to end a story and Vampires in the Lemon Grove ended on a very annoying and vague note of……what? Are they now bats? Will they fly away? Will Clyde now become the spirit of the young Goth girl? WTH, I asked myself?

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The saving grace is Russell’s ability to bring the description of those magical lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast vividly to life. It’s nearly enough to make you wish you were there, lying in that blazing coastal heat, watching the impossible blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Naples, a glass of wine in one hand and the other hand trailing in the salty water and the heady scent of those uniquely tart-sweet lemons. I considered making some type of lemon cocktail designed to be gently sucked from a straw in homage of these two odd vampires, but instead decided on a dessert, and gave Meyer lemon pie a whirl. Meyer lemons are as close to a true Amalfi lemon as you can get without actually hopping flight to Sorrento, and since this is the season for Meyer lemons, it seemed like the perfect marriage……..and no vampires to be found.

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INGREDIENTS
1 all-butter pre-made frozen pie crust
4 Meyer lemons and 1 regular lemon
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons fresh mint

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F and blind-bake the frozen pie crust for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool, and using a reamer or juicer, begin to juice the lemons into a bowl. They are very seedy so try to extract the seeds first if possible.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, add the three egg yolks and the vanilla.

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Add the lemon juice, the condensed milk and the salt, and mix well on medium for up to five minutes, until a you get a thickened, slightly golden, creamy texture.

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Pour the lemony mixture into the cooled pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for another 15 minutes, then refrigerate overnight.

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Pour the heavy cream into the now-clean mixing bowl of your red Kitchen Aid using the whisk attachment, and mix for 7-8 minutes, until the cream forms thick peaks. Add the sugar,the lemon juice and the lemon zest and whip again.

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Spread the lemony cream over the top of the chilled pie.

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Garnish with freshly chopped mint, and dive right in. Don’t save any for those pesky, lemon-sucking vampires!

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