The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

Reading this book and getting to know the main character of Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was both a joy and a sadness. This is a man with a great lust for life, dancing and drinking and eating and womanizing…….and with a talent for making decisions based on instinct and as oftentimes as not, ending up in worse circumstances.

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The trajectory of Cesar’s life is told in this book. He is a musician who comes from Cuba with his younger brother Nestor, both of them determined to make a name for themselves in the musical world of mambo in 1950s New York City. Nestor is a dreamer, sensitive and still in love with Maria back in Cuba, for whom he writes the song that will launch he and his brother into a semblance of success, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” While the title references both brothers, however, the book is truly Cesar’s tale of joy, woe, happiness, pain, and ultimately, calm satisfaction with his life. It really is the story of any man, of Everyman.

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Cesar is bigger than life, with appetites to match. He is the businessman, the driving force of the two brothers, yet – spoiler alert – when Nestor dies, a part of Cesar goes with him……..which all of us who have loved and lost someone can well relate to. There were times, though, when his life went from bad to worse, when his boozing and whoring made him into such a sad pathetic jerk, that I threw the book down in disgust. But I picked it up and continued reading, because his character is so fascinating, so resilient and ultimately, so filled with the joy of life.

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There’s a sense of wonder in this book that conveys Cesar’s mindset so well. You can understand why he continues to make the same mistakes over and over, yet still find something new and precious in his life. He is such a strong, tough, macho man, sensual, able to turn the world a bit on its axis toward him, and yet has those colossal weaknesses that bring him back down to earth.

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One passage in particular stood out to me. It’s just after they have appeared on the I Love Lucy show with Desi Arnaz, who becomes somewhat of a patron to them, and their Irish neighbor Mrs. Shannon comes to congratulate them and to goggle at Cesar, for whom she has a huge crush.

“She followed Cesar down the hallway…..through the kitchen into the dining room: they had a long table still set with platters of bacalao – codfish cooked with garlic – black beans, rice, a huge salad, pork chops and steaks from the plant, and a big bowl of yuca.”

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Yuca, a quintessential Cuban food, is also one of the simplest and tastiest things to cook. It’s a root vegetable, kind of like a potato or turnip but with more flavor. I cooked them still frozen, in chicken broth mixed with lemon juice and a chicken broth cube, about 30 minutes, to thaw, then added some olive oil and simmered on low another half hour to cook through. They do have a woody center that’s inedible so take that out before you eat. The pan juices, reduced, make a lovely sauce. Add salt if needed. The Cuban-style black beans were easy – I cheated and used canned black beans, and mixed them with gently sauteed onion, garlic, green pepper, salt and cider vinegar, mashing them to thicken.

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However, it was the bacalao that was the star of the show, based on this great recipe from La Cocina de Nathan. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb salt-cured bacalao

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2 eggs
2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking soda
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
6-7 cloves of garlic, either mashed into a paste or as finely grated as possible

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1.5 cups of water
Freshly ground black pepper

METHOD
Soak your bacalao overnight, changing the water every 2-3 hours. This is to drain the salt and also reconstitute the fish, kind of like what you do with dried porcini. Refrigerate the rinsed, drained and desalted cod until ready to use.

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Let bacalao come to room temperature. Peel the fish meat off the skin, taking out all the bones and scales. Flake with your hands, though initially you may need to use a sharp knife until the meat begins to break down.

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In a separate bowl, mix the flour and the baking soda together and whisk to evenly combine. Add the eggs to the flour and baking soda and whisk again. It will be a fairly crumbly mix, which is what you want at this point.

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Start gradually incorporating the water, until you have a thick, batterlike consistency. Add the chopped parsley and the mashed garlic and mix again.

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Then add your bacalao pieces, and stir well to mix. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Ideally you should refrigerate overnight. But in this case, hell no. I was hungry!

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Heat grapeseed oil in a large pan. When smoking hot, drop in spoonfuls of the bacalao batter. Don’t crowd the pan, as too many cooking at once will drop the oil temperature, which is what makes fried food greasy.

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Cook 3-4 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel to drain.

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Serve beautifully with the black beans and the garlic-flavored yuca, and of course, some wine.

“In the name of the mambo, and the rumba, and the cha-cha-cha.”

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The Vacationers by Emma Straub

This book was previously blogged about by a fellow food blogger, Cara Nicoletti, whose page Yummy Books was one of the inspirations for starting my own food and book blog. The Vacationers is about a family’s secrets and dysfunctions that come out over two weeks when they are vacationing in their house in Mallorca. I know, I know, it all sounds very dramatic and mysterious, but ultimately, it’s not.

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Though I always try to give every book a fair shake, I have to say that this one was  boring. Franny and Jim, the two main characters/couple/parents, are celebrating their 35th anniversary during the vacation, their daughter Sylvia just finished high school and hates her family (wow, big surprise, a teenager hating her family), the token gay couple, and the son and his beautiful girlfriend that everyone hates. Pretty cardboard and standard characters – the wealthy family, the cheating husband, the unhappy wife planning to leave the marriage, the spoiled kids – to whom I had a very hard time finding any point of relating.

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I did like Franny’s foodie-ness (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) and her love of cooking to work out her irritations and frustrations through her culinary adventures. Kind of like me! It’s nicely written, don’t get me wrong. The descriptions of the beach, the ocean, the house, the food………all are beautiful and lyrical. But the characters really aren’t likable, other than Carmen (the girlfriend everyone loves to despise), and overall, it just didn’t grab me and stay with me, though this food passage made me start salivating a little bit.

 Franny and the boys were making dinner – bacalao on toast, shrimp in a garlicky sauce, wilted greens. Tapas at home.

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I didn’t have the wherewithal to soak bacalao for 24 hours before putting it onto toast, good as that sounded. However, some garlicky shrimp with tomatoes and wilted spinach  sounded very doable, simple, and tasty. I had a packet of tortellini that needed to be used, and so I combined them, thus evoking a summer’s evening overlooking the crashing ocean waves.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 dozen grape tomatoes, halved
10 cloves of garlic, thinly slivered
1 small shallot, thinly slivered
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 lb partially thawed shrimp, tail on
4 cups fresh spinach
1 packet cheese tortellini

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METHOD
Boil a large potful of water, add a generous handful of sea salt, and cook the tortellini for about 5-7 minutes. Test it to ensure it is al dente, and save a cupful of the cooking water.

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In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently cook the grape tomatoes, garlic and shallot for about 10 minutes.

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Splash in the white wine, the lemon juice, and the red pepper flakes, and cook together another couple of minutes. Pour in a little bit of the pasta cooking water to help thicken the sauce and give some structure.

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Add the spinach, stir, and cover again, cooking for about 10 minutes so that it wilts.

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Add the shrimp to the mixture, cover and leave to cook for 5-10 minutes, checking frequently so the shrimp doesn’t overcook. When they are pink and plump, everything is ready.

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Toss in the cooked tortellini, stir and cook another couple of minutes, so all the flavors are mixed and mingled. Then serve and eat with happiness. Delicious, just like a day at the beach!

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Dracula by Bram Stoker

Thanks to TB for the photography.

It’s October! The month of peculiar things that go bump in the night, the season of the witch, of ghosts and haunted houses, of vampires and demons. And very appropriately, we kick off this month of Halloween-themed blog posts with the bad-ass granddad of all vampires books, Dracula, and its romantic, ghastly hero Count Drakulya, based on the historic Vlad the Impaler of Romania.

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You should look up the historical Vlad sometime. He was a real bastard of a human being, and he’s called the Impaler for a reason…….his favorite method of dealing with enemies (both his fellow countrymen and foreign soldiers) was impaling them on a huge stake and sitting among the bodies while drinking wine. Nice guy.

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But it’s the vampire legend created by Stoker that has fueled my imagination for years. I love vampires, with the exception of those pasty, pallid creatures in that silly Twilight series. But Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, Elizabeth Kostova, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon and my Irish buddy Bram Stoker here have all created truly creepy blood-sucking creatures that have stood the test of literary time.

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You know the story of Dracula and Mina and Jonathan Harker and Dr. Van Helsing and Renfield, so I won’t go into detail about it. But what I find fascinating about Stoker’s vampire is that he has stood the test of time better than any other night creature. There is obviously something about Count Dracula that has perpetually captured general fascination. All the writers above have used the template of Dracula for their books, and there are vampires everywhere in modern culture.

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There’s also that psycho-sexual element of the vampire in general that makes it so seductive – penetration of the other person (with teeth, you perverts), exchange of bodily fluids, biting on the neck. Dracula is also seeking his great love, which he finds in Mina. It’s incredibly romantic,and horrifying at the same time, this parasitic sucking of the blood and living off the essence of human beings…..which is what love can be at times. You can see why Dracula makes a totally sexy and hot anti-hero, even if he does leave you dead on the floor.

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When I was re-reading this book a few days ago, I noticed the detailed mentions of Eastern European food by Jonathan Harker’s character while on his way to meet the infamous Count Dracula in Transylvania. He notes something called mamaliga, which is a type of oatmeal or polenta; robber steak, which appears to be a type of kebab; and paprika hendl, which turns out to be chicken paprika. I think Jonathan was a secret foodie, personally.

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“We left in pretty good time, and came after nightfall to Klausenburgh. Here I stopped for the night at the Hotel Royale. I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty. (Mem., get recipe for  Mina.) I asked the waiter, and he said it was called ‘paprika hendl,’ and that it was a national dish, I should be able to get it anywhere along the Carpathians.”

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I’d eaten chicken paprika a few years ago, though it was made with canned soup and wasn’t particularly good. But now, recreating this dish, I’m giving it my own twist with fresh ingredients, smoked paprika, cayenne for some heat, some red pepper strips, and lots of garlic because I like smelling like a stinking rose, and because garlic repels vampires. You just never know what might be hovering at your window this time of year, waiting to sink its fangs into your neck.

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This is the method that worked for me, based loosely on a post from T.S. Bazelli’s very interesting blog, but of course, with the requisite additions by yours truly.

INGREDIENTS
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into cubes
Salt and pepper for seasoning
2 tablespoons olive oil

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2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon butter
1 tomato bouillon cube
1 tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika (yes, I know it’s not Hungarian, but they have vampires in Spain, too, don’t they?
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 onion, cut into long strips
1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
1 cup sour cream
1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup water
Egg noodles

METHOD
Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast-iron pan and brown the chicken pieces for about 5 minutes. Set aside.

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In the same pan, add the butter, onions, red bell pepper, garlic, flour, paprika and cayenne pepper. Stir briskly to get rid of any lumps the flour may create, and to get rid of any lingering floury taste.

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Add the tomato bouillon cube here so that it adds a savory note to the mixture. Chicken paprikash can be a bit bland if you don’t spice it up. You could add tomatoes, but that’s your call. The bouillon cube will add the desired tang without overwhelming the overall taste of the dish.

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Add the chicken stock and the water, and bring to a low bubble.

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Add the chicken pieces, stir around to mix everything, cover and leave to simmer gently for half an hour or so. Check occasionally to make sure everything is cooking but not burning. After the first 30 minutes, remove the lid so that the liquid can evaporate somewhat. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

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Add in the egg noodles, so they can absorb some of the liquid, which helps both with the dish’s texture and the flavoring of the noodles themselves.

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Add in the sour cream, stir together, and leave on very low heat another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally so the cream doesn’t curdle.

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Serve, preferably on blood-red plates with blood-red wine in goblets, candles burning, and the menacing shadow of Count Dracula stroking your neck as you eat.

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It’s a delicious dish, richly spiced with the smoky paprika and the hint of cayenne giving it heat, and the offset of the sour cream. The red peppers and onion aren’t overly cooked and still have a bit of crunch, and the garlic gives the added oomph that garlic does. Definitely something to make again!