The Wonder Worker by Susan Howatch

This is one of those books I would want with me if trapped on a desert island. The Wonder Worker has many levels, and is one of those wonderful stories that you return to again and again, always finding something new in the words.

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On the surface level, it’s a story about four everyday people and their lives at the London-based Anglican rectory of St. Benet’s Church. Nicholas Darrow is the rector of St. Benet’s, and along with his assistant priest Lewis Hall, they run the church and affiliated Healing Center. Alice Fletcher is their cook/housekeeper, and Rosalind Darrow is Nicholas’s wife and the ultimate match that sets the flame for the dramatic events that happen in the book. The story is told from their individuals viewpoints, and one of the things I like most about this book is how you see the same events through differing lenses, and you always empathize with each character, even if you hated them when reading about them from another character’s POV.

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On another level, this book is about spirituality and The Church of England, which might not sound like the greatest thrill in the world, but you’d be surprised. Howatch brings the rituals, beliefs and psychology of the Anglican Church vividly to life. Each of these four characters is in their own emotional or spiritual predicament, and it’s the combination of these four different emotional crises that bring the book to its very exciting and disturbing climax, involving a demonic possession! And who doesn’t love a demonic possession?

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On the deepest level, it’s about the power of love. Love has many facets, as we all know. What I took away was the understanding of true, unconditional love for another person. You don’t have to like the actions of the other person, and you certainly don’t have to condone their actions, in order to still love them. Alice is in love with Nicholas, though they never cross the line into adultery. Her initial feelings for him are romantic, schoolgirlish; she sees him through the rose-colored glasses of instant infatuation. When she begins to see his darker side, though, she still loves him and makes more of an effort to understand him. She accepts him always, even though some of his actions later in the book are appalling and she never condones them. It is this understanding and acceptance that helps her learn more about her own motivations and spirituality. She becomes a better person for loving him, and ultimately, it’s this unconditional love for him that transforms everyone else around them. And that is what spoke to my heart, that knowledge that true, unconditional love for another, can make you a better, stronger person. It definitely did me.

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Back to the book. Rosalind decides to cook an elegant dinner for herself and Nicholas when she visits St. Benet’s, somewhat under duress. She plans a civilized, gourmet meal during which they will dine, drink wine, and she will tell him she wants a divorce. What could possibly go wrong in this scenario?

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“For the first course I had decided to do deep fried radicchio with goat’s cheese, a very tasty starter which apart from the final frying, can be prepared ahead of time……For the main course I had chosen roast guinea fowl.”

Guinea hen is what it’s called here in America, but I substituted Cornish game hens because that’s what I had stashed in the freezer and wanted to avoid an unnecessary trip to the grocery store. As well, I had some porcini mushrooms I’d bought awhile back and it occurred to me that their rich, bosky, reconstituted flavors would be fantastic with Cornish game hen, and grilled radicchio with a tasty twist. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
3 Cornish game hens, room temperature
3 strips of good quality, thick bacon
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 rib of celery, finely chopped
3-4 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon truffle oil
Sea salt and pepper
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup chanterelle mushrooms
1 cup strong red wine
1 head red radicchio, cut into quarters
Olive oil
2 lemons
Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese

METHOD
Soak the porcini and chanterelle mushrooms in a cup of hot water each for about 30 minutes.

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Fry the bacon until crisp, and remove to a paper towel to drain. In the bacon juices, cook the shallots and garlic.

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Drain the mushrooms, but KEEP the liquid they’ve been soaking in. Chop the mushrooms and add them to the shallots, garlic and rosemary mixture. Crumble up the bacon and add it to the mixture as well.

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Season the insides and outsides of the Cornish game hens with salt and pepper. Stuff each cavity with a sprig of rosemary. Then add the mushroom-bacon stuffing.

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Slice a lemon thinly, and carefully tuck small slices between the Cornish hen skin and the meat. This helps tenderize and adds more flavor. Tuck the little birds into a casserole, pour over some olive oil, and squeeze over the juice of half a lemon. In a separate pan, combine the red wine, mushroom juices and a chicken bouillon cube. Whisk in about a tablespoon of cornstarch. Stir and cook constantly for 20 minutes. Pour the liquid over the birds, c0ver with a lid and cook stovetop for 30 minutes at medium. Heat the oven to 375.

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After 30 minutes on the stove, remove the lid and put the pan of birds into the oven to cook for another 40 minutes. You want them uncovered so the liquid reduces into a gravy, and the birds get crisp. Check them occasionally to make sure they don’t burn.

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While this is happening, grill your radicchio. Brush each quarter with olive oil, salt and pepper, and grill on a stovetop grill for about 5 minute per side, until those nice, black, charred marks show up. Squeeze over some lemon juice and grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

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Serve with any starch you’d like. I love black Japanese rice, so I cooked mine in a mixture of chicken and tomato broths, and garnished with slivered almonds.

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The result? Almost heavenly! The Church would approve.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I realize I am late to the party with this book, but seriously, I only “discovered” A Discovery of Witches, and forgive my cheesy-ass pun, when the Sundance Channel started airing the previews for the TV series based on the book trilogy. The series looked so well-made that I had to read the book and find out what all the hype was about.

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I’ll be honest and say off the top that no one does witches and vampires better than Anne Rice. They simply don’t. The woman has taken lush, lyrical, sometimes purple prose to new heights of sensuality when describing the taste of blood, the sensation of magic affecting the world around us, the scent of skin and flesh, the feeling of luxury in the smallest of details. So I went in fully not expecting anything similar to hers, but still hoping for a good read. And I wasn’t disappointed, though it was a different experience than what I’d expected.

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Matthew Clairmont is a vampire and Diana Bishop is a witch, in this fascinating universe of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They are both scholars in Oxford, Matthew a geneticist and medical doctor, and Diana a PhD-carrying professor of ancient alchemical texts. They meet in a library when Diana, whose witch talents have been “bound” since childhood, inadvertently unearths the magical tome Ashmole 782, an ancient book of magic that purportedly gives the secrets of how vampires, witches and daemons came into being and how any of these magical races might destroy the other and rule the world.

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Slightly melodramatic, yes. Of course, they have an instant attraction to one another, and of course they end up falling in love. The trajectory of their romance isn’t what you’d expect, though, since vampires, witches and daemons are forbidden from “fraternizing,” and they don’t consummate their love, at least not in this book. There are two more after this book, so hopefully they get some action in one of those. 😉

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Harkness writes with an unusual mix of historical reverence and modern sensibility, having her characters be these magical creatures with godlike powers, eternal life, and incredible talents…….and they do yoga. No, seriously. I about died laughing in the beginning of the book when Matthew courts Diana by taking her to a yoga class. Nothing against yoga here, but just the thought of a centuries-old blood drinker twisting himself into a downward-facing dog position gave me the giggles. Anyway, I digress.

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I do have to say that I didn’t much like the character of Matthew, quite honestly. I get that vampires, in this literary universe, are protective of those they love, and at heart, are predators so they consider the chase and the hunt an elemental part of any interaction and relationship. That, combined with being centuries old and being essentially a bossy, old-fashioned man who thinks he knows everything, make him a jerk. Pardon my crudeness, but yes, Matthew Clairmont is sort of a dick. He grew on me eventually, but I still think he’s an arrogant ass at times.

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There are some superb food references in this book, for being in the culinary repertoire of an ancient vampire who doesn’t even ingest food, at least, not much food. Matthew invites Diana to dinner at his elegant home when they are starting to fall in love, though ostensibly he is only inviting her to protect her from the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also sensed that the magical Ashmole has been unearthed and want to get their claws on it. But we all know Matthew has more on his mind than a book.

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The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat……..”it’s an old recipe from Normandy,” he said. “Do you like it?” “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Did you make it?”

I know the book specifies that Matthew makes Diana an old French-style veal stew with apples, but I can’t really stomach veal these days, so in honor of the fact of Matthew’s essential Frenchness, I opted instead for a beef stew with Dijon mustard and brandy. Can you get more Gallic than Dijon and brandy? 🙂

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup brandy
4 cups beef stock, preferably unsalted as the Dijon has quite a lot of salt
1/2 cup stoneground mustard
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots, with a sprinkle of sea salt over them. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Add the butter to the oil in the pan.

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Add the flour, salt and pepper to a large plastic bag, then put in the beef cubes to coat. Shake off excess flour with tongs, and place half the cubes in the pan.

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Cook over medium-high heat until well browned and crusty on all sides, then put into the bowl with the shallots. Repeat with the remaining beef cubes.

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Add the brandy to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose.

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Pour in the beef stock, the Dijon mustard and the stoneground mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender.

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The last 15 minutes of cook time, add the mushrooms and the red wine to the bubbling, fragrant stew. Simmer another 5 minutes, taste for seasoning, and serve with butter noodles and red wine to drink.

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So good and richly flavored! The mustard and brandy really complement one another, and perfectly tenderize the beef. No doubt a vampire would approve. I know we loved it so much we ate it all up before I could take the requisite “food and book” photo, so yet another shot of the luscious stew will have to suffice.

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The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Happy New Year! To start off 2018, I take us back to Venice, dear readers. But it’s not the Venice of dreams and watery, lyrical descriptions. This 16th-century Venice, elegantly depicted In The Company of the Courtesan, is a hard, rough place, stinking of rotten canal water and fish, and is as often the deathplace of dreams as it is the making of them.

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I’ve always found stories of the Venetian courtesans fascinating since I saw the marvelous film Dangerous Beauty, based on the biography The Honest Courtesan, which details the life and literary ambitions of Veronica Franco, a poet and courtesan in the late 1500s. This book, also about a courtesan in Venice, is told from the point of view of Bucino, an endearingly grumpy and intelligent dwarf who is the servant, companion, household capo, and most importantly, friend of the courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini, whose beauty, intelligence and charm are sharply contrasted by Bucino’s looks.

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After Fiammetta and Bucino arrive in Venice, wounded in body and spirit after the brutal Sack of Rome, they find her mother dead, and the evil housekeeper skimming the till. Fiammetta befriends Elena Crusichi, also called “La Draga,” who is a healer and beautician of some repute. Bucino sells some of their hidden gemstones to get them back on their feet and one afternoon, he thinks to buy some sugared fruit for Fiammetta, to cheer her up. In one of the most charming passages in the book, they reminisce about the kinds of foods they most wish for and miss from their heady days in Rome, when Fiammetta had hired one of Rome’s best chefs for her courtesan’s kitchen.

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“You know what I miss most of all, Bucino? The food. I am so hungry for taste every day that if I were still intact, I would sell my virginity for a good dish of sardines fried in orange and sugar. Or veal with morello cherry sauce and squash baked with cinnamon and nutmeg.”  “No, not veal, wild boar. With honey and juniper. And a salad of endives, herbs and caper flowers. And for dessert…” “Ricotta tart with quinces and apples.” “Peaches in grappa.” “Marzipan cakes.” “Ending with sugared fruits.” “Oh, oh.” And we are laughing now. “Help me. I am drooling here.” I pull a grimy paper from my pocket and uncover the remains of the sugared pears I bought in the piazza. “Here. Try this.” I say. And I lift it up to her. “Here’s to the best whore and the best cook under the same roof again.”

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Sugared pears –  also known as candied pears or caramelized pears – are a classic Italian recipe, and can be eaten as a dessert, or with a strong Gorgonzola cheese. This is the method that worked for me, based on Chuck Hughes’ recipe. With, of course, my own flavor tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
2 red pears
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup regular sugar or brown sugar
1/3 cup Pinot Noir red wine
Zest and juice of 1 lemon

METHOD
Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat, and slice the pears into lengthwise quarters, removing the seeds and stems. Add the pears to the butter in the pan.

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Gently cook, turning occasionally, for about 5-6 minutes, until they start browning a bit. The smell will indicate they are cooking, too.

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Sprinkle over the sugar and continue cooking until the sugar starts to caramelize.

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Pour over the red wine and let bubble up for another 5 minutes.

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Remove the pears to a plate to cool,and add the lemon juice to the red wine and sugar in the pan. Increase the heat to high, and reduce the liquid, so it thickens and becomes somewhat syrupy, approximately 7 minutes.

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Pour over the pears, grate over the lemon zest, and enjoy either with vanilla ice cream or with a nice wedge of strong blue cheese. It is so delicious, and a perfect sweet start to the new year.

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The Unburied by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser is my favorite author after Umberto Eco, writing as he does in the most lucid, erudite, intellectual and bawdy style that sucks you into the vivid, dirty, and virulent world of Victorian, post-Industrial England. His settings are the traditional British country house or vicarage, manor or townhouse, and his Dickensian-named characters show off the best and worst qualities of humanity. For all their quiet, tea-drinking mannerisms and genteel ways of speaking, these characters are among the most inept, foolish, clueless, stupid, venal and cruelly malign in modern literature.

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In Palliser’s twist on the traditional Christmas ghost story, The Unburied, Dr. Edward Courtine comes to the small British town of Thurchester to see his old school “friend” Austin Fickling for Christmas, and to see the town’s historic church and related records. Of course, being a church, there is a ghost. And a historical mystery. And then a murder, which happens moments after Edward and Austin visit the victim. How it all turns and twists together creates a memorable murder mystery/ghost story/ Christmas tale that will make you view the holiday season in a less-than-thrilled light.

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It is very much written in an academia tone, but it moves at the pace of a whirlwind, so anyone who enjoys British literature, the books of Charles Dickens, or even history, will enjoy this book. The sense of menace creeps up on you very subtly, and there are occasions when you – ok, when I – found myself snapping at Edward’s stupidity. “Hello, the answer is RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!!!!” I caught myself shouting before I pulled it together and reminded myself it’s just a book.

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In an early scene, Edward dines with Austin, with whom he is staying, in a horrible, freezing cold old house that is where the mystery kicks off. Austin is acting quite passively-aggressively nasty to Edward as he prepares their meal of chops and onions……not well, I would add.

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“After your long journey,” he went on, “I thought you’d like to stay in tonight, and I’ll cook our supper.”  “As you did in the old days,” I exclaimed. “Do you not recall? When we lodged at Sidney Street, we used to take turns to grill chops?”…………. Austin nodded. “Do you remember your ‘chops St. Lawrence’ as you called them? Burnt to a crisp like the poor saint.”

Pork chops with caramelized onions in a mustard-cream sauce seemed just the ticket on this chilly night, plus they are simple to make and best of all, delicious. This is the method that worked for me, based on my own recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
4 pork chops, bone out, 1/2 inch thick each
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup grain Dijon mustard
4 red onions, sliced into rings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD

Heat the oven to 400F.

Start with the onions. Put the olive oil and butter into a nonstick skillet and melt. Add the onions, and stir so all is glossy and covered. Sprinkle over the sugar, then let the onions cook slowly and brown underneath, stirring occasionally. This will probably take you a good 45 minutes, if not longer.

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At the 30-minute mark, pour in the red wine. Continue stirring and cooking.

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At the end of the cooking, you will have a pile of deliciously warm, brown-tinted caramelized onions that are sweet and have a marvelous soft texture.

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In the same pan heated to medium-high, add the pork chops, and season with salt and pepper. Sear each side for 5 minutes, then put the cast-iron pan with the chops into the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, let the chops rest, and put the pan back on the stove over a medium burner.

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Add the grain Dijon mustard and stir around. Then pour in the heavy cream and let it thicken and cook. Don’t let it curdle.

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To be quintessentially British, serve the sizzling hot chops with the Dijon-cream sauce poured over, the onions piled glossily on one side, and some classic mushy peas on the other. Sooooooo good and easy, too!

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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

In terms of medieval books, The Canterbury Tales is right up there with Dante’s Inferno as my top favorites. Unless you’re a trained medieval scholar, however, I would strongly recommend reading a more modern English translation of the book, since the medieval English of Chaucer is quite difficult to read.

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The entire book essentially revolves around food, in particular because the overall framework of the book is a storytelling competition, the reward for which is a magnificent feast. Several disparate individuals stop to stay the night at the Tabard Inn in London on their way to the cathedral at Canterbury, on a religious pilgrimage. Harry Bailly is the innkeeper and suggests that the pilgrims all tell a story to pass the time on the journey – the best one wins.

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The pilgrims, among them The Prioress, The Summoner, The Knight, The Miller, The Wife of Bath, The Reeve, The Man of Law, and The Friar, are introduced in a long prologue that describes their various attributes. Then the book is broken into sections consisting of each pilgrim’s tale, as varied as the pilgrims themselves, and are by turns, funny, romantic, adventuresome, bawdy, and at times very sexually explicit.

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Any Chaucer scholar or reader of this book understands the role that food played in this historical context. Food was a clear marker of wealth and social rank. Bread was a customary food across all economic groups, but the wealthy ate finely milled white bread (which was also very unhealthy, not having any nutrients in it.)  Those of the peasant rank ate the brown wheat bread that was healthier but also still with grit and small rocks in it. Wine was to be had by most people, but again, the quality depended on your ability to pay.

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I always liked the description of the Franklin, being referred to as “Epicurus’ own son,” meaning that he greatly enjoyed his food. Part of the lengthy introduction of the book, which is a heavenly description of fish, meat pies, wine, chicken, fat partridges, dainties (candies or pastries), bread and ale. Then, The Summoner is described in foodie terms, as he likes garlic and onion and red wine, which were considered to be unhealthy, so as such, so he is considered in a negative light.

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So, a combination of chicken, wine, spices, and the previously mentioned garlic and onion, seemed in order, and for me, that means coq au vin. With so much leeway in this recipe, I used my own method that’s based on the great Jacques Pépin’s marvelous recipe, using a bit of spice that would have been used in medieval cooking, and served with a salad of arugula, roasted beets, blue cheese, pine nuts, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Enjoy.

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INGREDIENTS
12 chicken thighs, bone in and skin off
1 bottle fruity red wine, like Grenache or Beaujolais
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 strips pancetta, cut into pieces
1 large yellow onion
8 baby carrots, cut lengthwise
3 garlic cloves, slivered
15-20 bella mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
3 bay leaves
1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (substitute for mace, a well-known medieval spice)
Egg noodles (optional)

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METHOD
Marinate the chicken in the red wine, garlic and herbs for up to 6 hours. Reserve the marinade.

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Fry the pancetta in the olive oil, then add the chopped-up onion and cook it for 10 minutes.

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Toss in the carrots and the mushrooms here, stir again, and cook another 10 minutes.

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Add the chicken pieces, pour in the marinade, and add the bay leaves. Mix everything together, and add the nutmeg.

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Pour over the chicken stock, and simmer on low for 2 hours, stirring occasionally and tasting for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed.

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For the last 45 minutes of cooking, add some egg noodles, which will absorb some liquid and thicken it. Taste again and season as needed.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It took me awhile to read this book, though it had been recommended by numerous friends and fellow bloggers. There are some seriously good food mentions in this book, which is partly why I read it three times. Also, it’s just an addictive read. The gist of the book is thus: As a teen, Theo loses his mother in a freak accident when the museum they are visiting is bombed. He finds another survivor who indicates he should take the famous painting “The Goldfinch,” which he does.

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Theo’s life goes through various twists and turns as he lives with his friend’s wealthy family, moves with his father and father’s girlfriend Xandra to Las Vegas where he meets the pivotal character and friend Boris – and finds his heart and compassion in rescuing Xandra’s neglected Malti-poo dog Popper – my favorite sub-plot. Ultimately, he returns to New York City and grows up with Hobie, becoming something of a shady art and antique dealer, always hiding the secret of the painting. But like all secrets, it eventually comes out.

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The characters in this book alone make it worth the read. Theo’s dad is a complete and utter loser whom I loathed and despised from day one. Xandra I hated on principle because she neglected her dog until Theo came along. Hobie was the father/friend we all want and whom I fell in love with due to his kind and unworldly heart. Popper the dog worried me so much, so concerned was I for his safety for much of the book, that I actually went online and found a webpage that addressed his safety and assures us readers that Popper lives and indeed, once he is taken under Theo’s wing, thrives. So no worries there. And then, there is Boris, Theo’s best friend from his Las Vegas days who reappears in adulthood and wreaks havoc but also is somewhat of a savior.

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Boris is sort of an anti-hero. You can’t help but like him and feel sorry for him, while at the same time, some of what he does is despicable. But……like all of us, we have our good and our bad sides, our light and our dark, and we are all complex human beings capable of great things and equally terrible things. Perhaps that’s why Boris is so fascinating.

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Manicotti is the meal Theo eats at his first dinner with his jerk father after his mother dies, so although it’s not a happy segment, it’s poignant.

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The food had arrived and I’d poured myself another large but surreptitious glass of champagne before they returned. “Yum!” said Xandra, looking glazed and a bit shiny, tugging her short skirt down, edging around and slithering back into her seat without bothering to pull her massive, bright-red plate of manicotti towards her. “Looks awesome!”

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Cara Nicoletti wrote one of my favorite blogs – Yummy Books – and posted several recipes from “The Goldfinch,” seeming to enjoy it as much as I did and sharing the same ambivalence I had about Boris. I used her version of this dish as my inspiration for today’s recipe, with – of course – a few tweaks of my own. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
For the marinara sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 baby carrots
1 celery rib
1 red onion
6 cloves of garlic
1 28 oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes
3 whole tomatoes, finely diced
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon each of fresh oregano, rosemary, thyme, and basil
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon
1 tablespoon tomato paste

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For the manicotti filling:
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, finely diced
5 oz fresh spinach
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded parmesan, divided
1 cup cream cheese, softened
Salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs
10 manicotti shells

METHOD
Make the marinara sauce first, a day ahead if possible. Finely chop the carrot, celery, onion and garlic, and cook for 10 minutes in the olive oil and butter. Add a sprinkle of salt.

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Add the canned tomatoes, the fresh tomatoes, the red wine, the bouillon, the tomato paste, and the fresh herbs. The smell is out of this world good! Stir together again, turn to a low simmer, cover, and cook for up to three hours, stirring occasionally.

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Using  a stick blender, mix the sauce until it is somewhat smooth. Refrigerate overnight.

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Finely dice the shallot and saute with the spinach. Allow to cool.

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Mix the cheeses together, season with salt and pepper, and add the two eggs. Blend well.

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Mix together the cooled spinach with the cheeses, put in a large plastic bag, and and refrigerate for an hour.

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Heat the oven to 350F. Cook the manicotti shells in boiling, salted water for 6 minutes, or until al dente. Don’t overcook them, as they will still cook in the oven. Allow to cool.

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Spread a layer of the marinara sauce in a large baking pan.

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Snip a hole in the corner of the plastic bag with the spinach and cheese filling. Fill the cooled manicotti shells by squeezing one end of the bag, kind of like a piping bag in baking.

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Lay the filled shells in the pan and cover with the rest of the marinara sauce. Sprinkle over some more parmesan cheese and bake for 30 minutes. Heaven on a plate!

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Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Thanks to TB for the photography.

Do you know what it’s like to read a book and have it haunt you, like a whisper or the faint hint of perfume in an empty room? I’ve always been possessed by the gorgeous Gothic-ness of Rebecca, which has mystery, ghosts, passionate love and a big, haunted house. And then of course, the most intriguing opening line………”Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

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I admit, rather shamefacedly, to having reread this on Audible, listening as I  cooked. It’s hard sometimes to put everything down and read a book with pages, as pleasurable as that is. In fact, I recently had a conversation with a very dear friend called Richard, about what constitutes pleasure in life. We both agreed that food, sex, wine, and music are all true pleasures, but I added two more – turning the pages of a wonderful book, and coming to really fantastic part in a book. You can’t beat any of those, but as with everything in life, you have to find the time, or a way to combine them. Hence, cooking with Audible.

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Anyway, the gist of this book is thus: a young woman meets the handsome, debonair and rather gloomy Max de Winter in the south of France, falls in love with him, and he whisks her off to a very quick marriage and honeymoon, before taking her home to his gothic mansion by the sea, called Manderley. Can you see why I fell in love with this book?

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Max’s first wife, Rebecca, had drowned a few years earlier, and the house is ghostly with her presence. Her initials are on everything, her clothes are still in the house, her perfume hangs in the air, and perhaps worst of all, her spirit still seems to haunt the living, particularly Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper who adored Rebecca.

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I was fortunate enough to cook this week’s recipe at my wonderful friend Elizabeth’s house, when I was house- and dog-sitting for her.

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Her kitchen is absolutely stunning, full of light and gorgeous appliances, and the perfect place to both cook a marvelous meal and to also sip wine and listen to the the ongoing adventures of our heroine, Max de Winter, the evil Mrs. Danvers, and imagine myself within the marble walls of Manderley.

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The unnamed heroine – no, she is never named – meets Max when she is working as a companion to the hideous and vulgar Mrs. Van Hopper and they are staying at a fancy hotel in the south of France. The heroine loathes her employer, and this dislike comes through clearly in this passage, which inspired me.

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…..compared to Mrs. Van Hopper, her fat, bejeweled fingers questing a plate heaped high with ravioli, her eyes darting suspiciously from her plate to mine for fear I should have made the better choice.

I love a good ravioli, stuffed with cheese or anything else. Though I don’t yet have the Kitchen Aid attachments for rolling and cutting homemade pasta, that’s on my list. In the meantime, I used premade ravioli from the marvelous Italian deli Tully’s, and my own tomato cream sauce with sausage and chicken. This is my own method, devised after too many pots of tomato sauce to mention.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 white onion
5 cloves of garlic
2 14-oz cans of San Marzano tomatoes
1 tablespoon fresh basil
1 tablespoon fresh oregano
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
Salt and pepper to taste
2 heaping tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 cup half-and-half
2 bags of premade ravioli
4 cups spinach
8 oz Italian sausage
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs

METHOD
Heat the olive oil and butter in a pot. Finely chop the onion and garlic. Add to the oil and butter and saute for about 10 minutes.

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Mince the oregano, basil, and rosemary. Wonderful smells! Add to the onion and garlic, and stir together to cook, another 10 minutes.

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Pour in the tomatoes and stir again. Crimson heaven!

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Add the red wine and the chicken bouillon paste, stir to mix, then cover and simmer for an hour.

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In another skillet, cook the sausage for about 5 minutes, then add to the tomato sauce. Cook another hour on a low simmer.

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Cube and cook the chicken in a pan until it’s pink and cooked through. Add to the tomato sauce to finish cooking.

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Finely blend the sauce in a blender. Pour back in the pan to stay hot.

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Toss in the spinach to wilt in the hot sauce. Stir, cover, and let render down.

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Add the half-and-half here, to make a lovely pinkish-red emulsion.

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In another pot, boil the ravioli in salted water for 3 minutes, then finish cooking them in the hot tomato sauce.

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Plate up by putting some of the luscious sauce onto a platter, topping with some ravioli, and dolloping another large spoonful on top. Then, simply enjoy with a sigh of pleasure.

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Dune by Frank Herbert

Thanks to JP for the photography.

I remember discovering the planet Arrakis when I was about 11 years old and nosily poking around my uncle Greg’s apartment. He lived in a guest apartment behind my grandparent’s house and had a taste for the music of The Police and sci-fi fiction, both of which he passed along to me. I saw Dune on his sofa and the cover just grabbed me immediately – those huge spice worms! So, of course, I had to sneak away with it and read it.

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Admittedly, it was somewhat over my head but the great thing about reading something new at that age is that you’re still open to new concepts and ideas and so suspension of disbelief is much stronger. I fell in love with Paul Atreides AND Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, and never had any trouble believing in that otherworldly planet of sand where the worms excrete the spice of life and the sand inhabitants have blue-upon-blue eyes.

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If you haven’t read this book, or seen the DeLaurentiis film, the basic premise is thus: Set hundreds and hundreds of years in the future, there are two warring empire families who are vying for control of the Planet Arrakis. The House Atreides and the House Harkonnen battle it out for the Planet, which is the only known place in their universe where they can mine the spice “melange,” which can extend life, grant extrasensory powers, and even allow people to travel through time. Paul Atreides is the hero of the book, and of course, every hero must have an antagonist. In this case, Feyd-Rautha, the nephew of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, becomes Paul’s enemy as their families fight to control the spice, Arrakis, and indeed, the universe itself.

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It was interesting for me to reread this book as an adult, because I actually found myself not liking Paul Atreides very much, especially later in the book when he goes to war against the Baron and becomes fully the Kwisatz Haderach. I suppose when someone gains that level of power, it’s difficult not to allow it to change you, though. Another interesting tidbit that I don’t think I paid attention to was the subtext of Duncan Idaho’s secret love for Paul’s mother, the Lady Jessica.

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My dad loved this book, too, and I remember he and my uncle Greg having long, intense conversations about it when I was little. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized they were analyzing a book, not world politics. It just always seemed so very important, like they were debating the fate of the world or something. Not that this book isn’t marvelous and very detailed, but still. Kind of funny to realize what sci-fi nerds they both really were. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from tree, though. Ahem…..

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Anyway, when rereading this book, I came across this passage, when Lady Jessica and Duke Leto Atreides (Paul’s father) are entertaining a group of bankers from the Empire, serving them dinner but also trying to find out if they are secretly supporting House Harkonnen. Lady Jessica calls for a most unusual dish.

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Jessica signaled for another course of food and drink. Servants appeared with langues de lapins de garenne – red wine and a sauce of mushroom-yeast on the side………..”Very important,” he agreed. “What is this dish? It’s delicious.” “Tongues of wild rabbit in a special sauce,” she said. “A very old recipe.”

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I hadn’t had rabbit in years, and though I couldn’t stomach the thought of eating rabbit tongues, rabbit braised in red wine and mustard, with mushrooms, sounded divine. So that’s what I made, using a combination of rabbit methods from Simply Recipes, The New York Times, and The Two Fat Ladies. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
2 lbs organic rabbit pieces, skinned and bone-in
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
4 pieces of bacon, cut into strips
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 and 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons grain Dijon mustard
2 cups red wine
1 cup heavy cream
Fresh parsley

METHOD
Salt and pepper the rabbit pieces, and brown them in the butter and olive oil. Set aside.

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In the pan juices, add the bacon strips and cook until brown. Yum bacon!

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Remove the bacon, and add the onion, the mushrooms, and the thyme; and cook for about 10-15 minutes. The smell alone will transport you!

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Add the cooked mushrooms and onions to the plate with the bacon, and splash in some red wine to deglaze the cooking pan. Scrape up the lovely brown bits, as they add so much flavor to the dish.

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Whisk together the rest of the red wine with the mustard and the flour, creating a kind of thin slurry. Place the browned rabbit pieces into the pan, and pour over the red wine-mustard sauce.

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Add in the bacon, onions and mushrooms, and gently mix everything around so that the sauce covers everything.

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Cover and simmer on very low heat for up to an hour. After an hour, remove the lid, and remove the rabbit pieces to a plate. Turn up the heat, and let the winy sauce boil hard for about 10 minutes, to thicken.

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While the sauce is reducing, boil some egg noodles in salted water, until al dente, maybe 6 minutes at the most.

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Add the cream to the reduced sauce, stirring so that everything melds harmoniously. Don’t let it curdle.

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Plate the rabbits atop the egg noodles. Ladle over the beautiful, creamy sauce. Garnish with parsley.

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Soooooo good, and just different enough to make a Sunday lunch feel a bit more special. Do try this if you find some good-quality rabbit, or if you’re not a bunny boiler, it’s also delicious with boneless, skinless chicken thighs!

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

Thanks to AL for the photography.

Being a sucker for fairy tales, The Snow Queen is a particular favorite. I remember reading it as a little girl and being fascinated by the oh-so-foreign Northern European world of Gerda and Kay, the two children in this tale, though I’d forgotten there are several small backstories that lead up to the actual tale in which Gerda rescues Kay from the icy heart and clutches of the Snow Queen.

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What’s cool about the Snow Queen is that she’s not actually evil, in the way of similar archetypal figures in The Brothers Grimm. She is simply ice-cold, and has a coldly calm and logical outlook on life. I appreciated that she wasn’t a cardboard evil queen and there was actually some psychology in Andersen’s description of her.

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I was quite interested to find out that this classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale inspired both the irritating Disney movie Frozen, and the wonderful Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which are among my most favorite children’s books. I can definitely recognize The White Witch from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe here.

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This story starts with a naughty hobgoblin who creates a looking-glass that reflects purely negative things, either things that exist in the world or in the perceptions of human beings. The glass breaks, and is scattered all over the world, into the hearts and eyes of humans across the world, making them unable to see or feel anything good or happy or positive in the world. Kay, the young boy who gets splinters in both his eye and heart, and is taken prisoner by the Snow Queen. Gerda, Kay’s best friend who loves him dearly, sets off on a quest to bring him back, and along the way, has some unusual adventures. My favorite was when she meets the Little Robber Girl, a wild child in the company of a band of thieves who kidnap Gerda. The Little Robber Girl is a rather brutal creature, though she does save Gerda’s life and offer her freedom to continue on her quest. When the thieves capture Gerda and bring her to their camp in the care of the Little Robber Girl, Gerda, who is starving, notices “there was no chimney; so the smoke went up to the ceiling, and found a way out for itself. Soup was boiling in a large cauldron, and hares and rabbits were roasting on the spit.”

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I started thinking about how to combine these two food references, and pondered making rabbit stew. But because I can’t bring myself to eat cute, furry bunnies, I reconsidered. The soup could be any type of soup, and being in a caramelizing mood, I decided French onion soup with Welsh rarebit croutons on top, in place of the traditional baguette and melted Gruyere, would be fun and tasty. Welsh rarebit is actually called Welsh rabbit in some areas, which was partly my inspiration.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on Tyler Florence’s French Onion Soup recipe, and the hilariously funny and smart Alton Brown’s recipe for Welsh rarebit. The requisite flavor tweaks by me were, of course included.

For the French onion soup:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 red onions, sliced
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4 garlic cloves, chopped
5-6 fresh thyme sprigs
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2 bay leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup red wine, about 1/2 bottle
2 quarts beef broth
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 tomato bouillon cube
For the Welsh rarebit sauce:
1 large slice of sourdough bread
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

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2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 large tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
1/2 cup Gruyere

METHOD
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pan. Add the onion, garlic and thyme, and some salt and pepper to taste. Stir together on low heat.

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Add about a half-cup of good red wine to the caramelizing onions, and continue to stir. This is leisure cooking, so be prepared to cook low and slow. I personally find caramelizing onions to be incredibly therapeutic, like making risotto. You just stir and stir and stir, adding a bit of this or a bit of that to enhance the flavors.

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This is what you want your onions to look like. Depending on how low or high your heat, this may take 30 minutes or 2 hours.2016-12-11-17-26-25_resized

Add in your homemade beef broth to the onions, and toss in the bay leaves. If you’re lucky enough to have a friend who loves to make stock, ask her to provide you some. Otherwise, use boxed beef broth but get a good, organic brand. The taste is just better.

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Simmer the broth and onions low and slow again for about an hour. Add the rest of the red wine, and the two bouillon cubes, and continue to cook very low, covered. The longer you cook this soup, the more the flavors will mingle so this is a perfect Sunday afternoon dish.

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While the soup is slowly simmering and filling your kitchen with the warm scent of beef and onions, make the rarebit sauce. Melt the butter in a smaller saucepan, and whisk in the flour gradually but thoroughly so as not to have that floury taste.

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Add the Worchestershire sauce, and the Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and whisk together. Taste for seasoning at this point.

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Add the heavy cream and the milk here, and stir together. You’ll see it thickening and browning slightly as you continue to whisk. This is good. You want it to brown somewhat, as that will add to the flavor.

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Now it’s time to add the grated cheddar and Gruyere. Whisk in these two cheeses until they melt thoroughly. Don’t let them form a lump, as that will not be attractive.

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Turn down the heat, add a bit more milk, and then toast the bread.

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Ladle the soup into a bowl, add a bread slice on top, and then add a dollop of the rich, creamy rarebit sauce. The Dijon adds such a note of savory that it goes perfectly with the sweetness of the onions and beef.

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Eat with happiness in your heart, instead of the ice splinter that pierced Kay and caused him to drag Gerda all over the ice-covered world. However, like all good fairy tales, they lived happily ever after. As will you once you eat this soul-warming soup. Yum!

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