The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

In honor of Easter Sunday, I decided to reacquaint myself with The Last Temptation of Christ, a book that has a very soft spot in my heart. This is the book and movie for which I was kicked out of Catholic school back in 9th grade. I didn’t get kicked out because I was a troublemaker or kissing boys behind the school or anything sinful that would warrant getting the boot from good old St. Michael’s High School. I got kicked out for asking questions. Let me explain.

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The movie came out in the mid-1980s and caused a huge ruckus in the Catholic Church, the reason being is that the movie – and the book it was based on – showed a scene of Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene. I will give you the context of that scene later in this blog, but oh the horror! My mom fell in with the ridiculous mob mentality of many parents back then and refused to allow my sister and I to see it. So of course, what does forbidding something from someone make them want to do? It makes them want to have it, of course.

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Anyway, I spent the weekend with my Dad during all this brouhaha, and we went to rent movies at Blockbuster one evening. I saw a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ – VHS old school, no less! – and asked if I could rent it. Being that he was a teacher, he was never big on restricting knowledge and so he said yes, I could rent it but I had to watch it with him and he’d answer any questions I might have. Oh goody goody gumdrops, was my reaction. So I watched it and was enthralled with the vision of the human Jesus that I had never previously experienced. (Also, how freakin’ cool is it that David Bowie played Pontius Pilate!!!!)

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I was raised Catholic, obviously, and the Jesus I learned about always knew he was the Son of God and what his ultimate fate would be, or at least, this was how it was presented to me. So to watch this movie, which showed Jesus as a man with doubts and fears and desires who was having visions of God and seeing and hearing things and thinking that he was going insane was a HUGE revelation to me. It’s hard to even put into words just how much of a revelation it was……literally life-changing because from that point on, my entire concept of Jesus and God and religion shifted and I wanted to know more.

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So Monday rolled around and I happily trotted back to St. Mike’s with the scales having fallen from my eyes, as it were, and ended my school day with religion class. I sat down in Brother Ben’s class, we did the lesson and I naively raised my hand to ask a question that had occurred to me after having watched the film. My dad, bless his movie censor heart, had fallen asleep during the film so I couldn’t ask him. Anyway, I can’t remember the exact question, but it infuriated Brother Ben, who was this large, red-faced, beefy Irishman of a priest and his face turned the color of a tomato when I asked my question. He said, “Why are you asking that kind of question?!” in a very peeved tone of voice. I responded “Well, I saw this movie this weekend and it made me start thinking about this so I wanted to ask you.” He responded quite angrily, “What movie did you see?” and dummy me, not seeing the warning signs at the time, said innocently, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Oh my Lord – pardon the pun – it was like throwing a match into a keg of gasoline. He exploded, shouting at me and questioning why my parents would allow me to watch such filth and that I had no business asking those kinds of questions, etc. etc. A few weeks later, at the end of the school year, my mom got a letter from the principal of St. Mike’s suggesting I would be happier in a “non-parochial environment.” I still laugh about it now.

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Anyway, the book tells the story of Jesus and his path to realizing he is the Son of God, his ministry, his temptations, and his crucifixion. But then from there, while he is slowly and agonizingly dying on the cross, it veers into a lengthy, intense vision of what his life would have been like if he had been different, lived as a a normal man. In this vision, he lives, marries the woman he loves Mary Magdalene (hence his vision of them making love and the furor that created in the Church because what a horrible thing for Jesus to imagine his destiny differently), has children and lives an otherwise unremarkable, normal, happy life. In  other words, the sex scene is all in his mind as part of his vision of giving up being the Son of God. If you were dying slowly and horrifically, wouldn’t you want to escape mentally and imagine you were somewhere else with someone you loved? I would, JC! You’re not alone!

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The son of Mary felt calmed. He sat down on the root of the ancient olive tree and began to eat. How tasty this bread was, how refreshing the water, how sweet the two olives which the old lady gave him to accompany his bread. They had slender pits and were as fat and fleshy as apples! He chewed tranquilly and ate, feeling that his body and soul had joined and become one now, that they were receiving the bread, olives and water with one mouth, rejoicing, the both of them, and being nourished.

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Isn’t that the most beautiful description of eating? I just love it. It inspired me to make olive bread, because bread is the most Biblical of foods and olives were common in Jesus’ time, and then of course, you have the whole Mount of Olives reference and so on. This is the method I used, based on a long-remembered recipe from a Mediterranean cookbook I used to have. Best part? No kneading involved.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups lukewarm water
1 package (2 and 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 cups all purpose flour
1 cup mixed green and black olives
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Olive oil
1 teaspoon each of dried parsley, dried basil and dried thyme

METHOD
In a large mixing bowl, combine water and yeast.

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Add one cup of flour and the sea salt, and stir until well mixed.

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Add the sliced olives and the garlic powder. Mix again.

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One cup at a time, stir in the remaining flour. You’ll notice the mixture getting thicker and shaggier with each cupful. This is normal.

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Cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and set somewhere warm to rise for an hour.

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Add a tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch cast iron skillet and coat the bottom and sides of the skillet, then transfer the now-risen and very sticky dough to the oiled skillet. You may need to shape it a bit to make it the round size you want.

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Cover with the tea towel and let it proof another half-hour, and heat the oven to 425F.

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Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil on top of the dough, sprinkle with the dried herbs and maybe a bit of sea salt.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top crust is nice and brown. Isn’t it beautiful? I was so proud!

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Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before removing the bread from the skillet. Let cool a bit more, and serve with either butter or very good extra-virgin olive oil and a glass of red wine. Because it’s Easter. You gotta have the bread and wine to be saved.

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Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

A very magical and whimsical book ostensibly written for children, it also translates beautifully for adults. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is, at its heart, a poignant treatise on the importance of words and stories and language and not censoring either your imagination or your voice. Written by Salman Rushdie, whose seminal work The Satanic Verses earned him a death warrant from the former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, this novel was written for his son Zafar when Rushdie was in hiding.

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Reading this wonderful tale about Haroun, whose father Rashid, is a master storyteller, and who must go on a journey through the world of stories to help his father regain his storytelling ability, was both inspiring and somewhat depressing. Since Rushdie wrote this book for his son when he was in exile during the fatwa put on his life by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, you can detect a sadness, a wistfulness in the words.

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Along his journey, as with every type of quest book, the main character runs into a fantastical array of side characters, including Blabbermouth – reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, and so many more works of fantasy and fiction.

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“You mean that just because you’re a girl you aren’t allowed to be a page?” Haroun asked sleepily. “I suppose you only do what you’re told,” Blabbermouth hotly rejoined. “I suppose you always eat up all the food on your plate, even the cauliflower.”

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Cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables, but I only like it when it’s cooked. I know, I’m just weird not liking raw vegetables, but either the texture or that green underflavor just makes me want to barf. So in doing some research on ways to jazz up roasted cauliflower, I came across this marvelous method on the Whole Bite Blog, and am reproducing it in honor of Salman Rushdie’s paean to his son and to the importance of free speech.

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INGREDIENTS
1 large head of cauliflower
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons capers
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Wash the cauliflower and break into florets in a large bowl. Pour over the olive oil and mix well with your hands to ensure every piece is covered.

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Lay the cauliflower pieces on a large flat baking tray and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Roast for 25 minutes until the cauliflower browns, then flip the pieces so the other side can brown evenly, and roast another 25 minutes.

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While the cauliflower is roasting in the last 15 minutes, heat a cast-iron skillet and toast the almonds until they start to brown and you can smell the nutty flavor. Allow to cool a bit.

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For the vinaigrette, mix the lemon juice and zest, the capers, Dijon mustard and maple syrup together. Whisk in the olive oil slowly until the vinaigrette thickens. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

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Put the roasted cauliflower into a large bowl, sprinkle over the toasted almonds, and slowly pour over the vinaigrette, stirring to ensure everything gets a good dose.

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Plate up and serve with chicken or salmon or anything else. It is sooooooo delicious, with savory flavors beautifully offset by the tangy lemon and sweet maple syrup, all gorgeously enhancing the roasted nuttiness of the cauliflower. Definitely a keeper!

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Bless Me, Última by Rudolfo Anaya

With many thanks to the lovely Karen Michelle for her amazing photographs.

Rudolfo Anaya is considered the seminal author on the Chicano experience. He was born in New Mexico post-WWII, and became an English teacher and then professor at the University of New Mexico. Not an unusual trajectory for a published author, but what makes Anaya unique, both on the world stage and to me personally, is the fact that he really was one of the first published and widely-read Hispanic authors.

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Bless Me, Última was his first published work, and it tells a universal tale of a young boy named Antonio and his coming of age, the mentor – in this case, an old woman called Última who is a curandera (a healer, in Spanish), and some say a witch, as she has an owl that accompanies her everywhere and is her familiar – and his subsequent questioning of all that he has been raised to believe. Antonio and Última’s friendship becomes the bedrock of his life, and from her, he learns the use of herbs as medicine and magic, the nature of good and evil, and what it means to love and lose. In short, all the lessons we learn growing up.

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The reason this book means so much to me is because it was the first book I ever read that actually, and accurately, described what it was like growing up Hispanic in New Mexico. The Spanish phrases that Antonio’s parents use were all used by my grandparents and great-grandparents. All of the healing methods that Última teaches Antonio were used regularly by my Great Granny Baca, and both of my grandmothers. Most vibrantly, I remember Great Granny Baca sweeping up my Great Grandpa Baca’s hair after she’d given him a haircut because “no le quieren las brujas.” If you read the section about the witches – the infamous Trementina sisters and their curse on Antonio’s uncle Lucas – you will know exactly what I am talking about. And of course, the food they ate – beans, chicos, tortillas, atole, green chile – those were the foods I grew up eating.

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I spread the blankets close to the wall and near the stove while Última prepared the atole. My grandfather had brought sugar and cream and two loaves of bread so we had a good meal. “This is good,” I said. I looked at my uncle. He was sleeping peacefully. The fever had not lasted long. “There is much good in blue corn meal,” she smiled. The Indians hold it most sacred, and why not, on the day that we can get Lucas to eat a bowl of atole then he shall be cured. Is that not sacred?”

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Atole is a traditional New Mexico drink made from finely ground blue corn served with hot milk and sugar. It’s very good, although for someone like me, who doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, it’s not something I ever considered making as an adult. I did, however, start thinking about blue corn in general and wondering how it would taste cooked as a sort of savory oatmeal. I’d never cooked with blue corn before, and when I researched cooking methods, ironically, the grossest-sounding recipe for it was on the New Mexico True website, which included quinoa, pinon and raisins. What the hell? Who in their right mind would cook traditional atole with quinoa and raisins? Blech. So I dug a bit more and found this New York Times recipe for blue corn cakes, which I tweaked a bit and used as a basis for my own unique New Mexico dish – savory blue corn cakes with poached eggs and green chile. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound divine!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup blue corn meal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon caldo de pollo (powdered chicken bouillon)
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, room temperature, with the yolks separated
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup melted butter
2 whole eggs, room temperature
1 heaping cup of roasted and chopped green chile, flavored with salt, garlic and olive oil, heated through

METHOD
Mix the blue corn meal, the flour, the salt, the pollo de caldo, and the baking powder together. Set aside.

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Whisk the egg yolks with the heavy cream and the water, then beat the egg whites until foamy, add to the yolk and cream mixture, and stir again.

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Gradually add in the blue corn and flour mixture, and add the melted butter. Stir again, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

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Heat a non-stick pan with a teaspoon of olive oil, and in a separate pan, heat together some salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar. This is for poaching the eggs.

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Form small cakes from the blue corn batter.

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Put the blue corn cakes into the hot oil in the pan. Cook for about 1-2 minutes per side. Lay on a platter.

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Poach the eggs. Stir the hot water and vinegar until you get a good whirlpool action going, then gently crack in the eggs and let cook until they firm up.

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Put the blue corn cakes on a plate, and put a poached egg on top. Season with salt and pepper, then ladle over the hot green chile. Eat with joy and happiness in your heart, because this really is New Mexico soul food, with a twist.

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One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights) as retold by Hanan al-Shaykh

I don’t know about you, but when I think of One Thousand and One Nights, or as it’s more commonly known, The Arabian Nights, what comes to mind are exotic tents in the desert surrounded by turbaned thieves, camels with tasseled saddles, beautiful dancing girls draped in veils in emerald green, ruby red, and turquoise blue, exotic dishes garnished with seeds and nuts and herbs, and at the center of it all, the Pasha himself, waiting to be appeased with stories.

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Genies in bottles granting wishes, Sinbad the Sailor on the high seas battling monsters, flying carpets, Aladdin and his magical lamp, Ali Baba and his crew of 40 thieves, viziers and caliphs, all are told over a series of – yes, you guessed it – 1,001 nights when Scheherazade tells her tales to avoid being killed by her husband. The idea is that he will want to know what happens next, so he won’t kill her. Their story is the framing tale that supports the other tales, some of which have stories within stories within stories.

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I hadn’t realized that Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba, and others, were originally from this book, which was such a pleasure to read. The book is divided into segments for each night that Scheherazade weaves her literary magic, by story. However, I warn you that these stories are not for children, so don’t be expecting the Disney version of Aladdin, with singing monkeys and a blue genie. These tales are violent, somewhat misogynistic, often brutal and cruel, and also highly erotic……which makes sense as Scheherazade is one of many harem wives to the Pasha.

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One of the more entertaining stories is that of the Two Viziers, in which the character Badr-al-Din is supposed to have cooked a pomegranate dish for the royal household, and it is not up to par.

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The following night Shahrazad said: It is related, O King, that Ja’far said to the caliph: Badr al-Din said, “Because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper, you have beaten me, smashed my dishes, and ruined my shop, all because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper!”

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Goodness, the poor man! I’ve occasionally screwed up a dish that I was cooking for others, but luckily no one has beaten me for it……yet.  🙂  Anyway, a pomegranate dish with pepper sounded both exotic and like a culinary challenge, so I did some research and found a traditional Middle Easter recipe called fesenjan, which is spicy chicken baked in a pomegranate sauce. Being that this is the season of pomegranates, and with my love of those tasty little cluckers, and in honor of this classic book, I made pomegranate chicken. And yes, I added plenty of pepper!

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INGREDIENTS
12 chicken thighs, skin on
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
2 cups walnuts
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup pomegranate anils
Fresh thyme

METHOD
First, make the pomegranate syrup. Pour the pomegranate juice into a small sauce pan, bring to a boil, and cook about 30-45 minutes, until it thickens into a syrup. Add a bit of salt and lime juice and allow to cool.

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Heat the oven to 325F.

In a flat pan, toast the walnuts until just brown and giving off that toasty, nutty scent. Remove from heat and roughly chop into smaller pieces. Set aside.

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In a separate pan, saute the chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until soft and translucent.

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Add the turmeric, cinnamon, and chili flakes and cook another 5 minutes. Remove from the pan.

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Salt and pepper the chicken thighs, and brown them about 7 minutes on each side. You may need to brown them in batches. Don’t crowd them into the pan or they won’t brown properly.

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Put half the onion-garlic mixture into a large Dutch oven, place the browned chicken thighs on top, then put the remainder of the onion on top of the chicken, and dot with the chicken bouillon paste.

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Pour over the pomegranate molasses, and then add the chicken stock.

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Cover the dish and bake for an hour, checking to make sure it isn’t dry. If it is, add a bit more chicken stock. Allow to cool and serve over any rice of your choice – I used Japanese black rice – and garnish with pomegranate anils and green thyme sprigs. It is so pretty that you almost don’t want to eat it………almost.

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The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty

Well, I had to, didn’t I? It’s October. It’s Halloween weekend. What other book could I possibly blog about other than The Exorcist, that classic tale of demonic possession, faith, and terror? I’d never read the book, though I’ve seen the movie many times, especially in October. The film hasn’t lost its shock value, though it’s not as terrifying as it was when I saw it as a young girl.

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But the book is genuinely unnerving, creeping up with subtlety and giving you more insight into the characters than is comfortable. Chris MacNeil, in point of fact, is a much more likeable character in the book, though she is still somewhat irritating. Father Karras is even more likeable, particularly because his own crisis of faith and personal guilt are given much more attention and backstory.

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Blatty’s writing is accessible – short sentences, everyday words, and concise narration – which makes it all the more powerful in telling this horrific tale set in Georgetown. This is even more effective when describing some of the more disturbing scenes – Regan and the infamous crucifix, her head twisting completely around, some of the more profane and filthy things she says, the priest falling down those vicious stairs – which really exist, by the way. See below.

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I think, at its heart, it’s a book about faith. Whether it’s faith in God, faith in the power of love, faith in science, or faith in the unknown, it’s the idea of believing in something greater outside of ourselves that is the thread tying it together. And then, of course, there was this passage. Of course you know what comes to mind when you read it.

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They went to the Hot Shoppe. Chris ate a salad while Regan had soup (haha, of course she did!), two sourdough rolls, fried chicken, a strawberry shake, and blueberry  pie topped with chocolate ice cream. Where does she put it, Chris wondered, in her wrists? The child was a slender as a fleeting hope.

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You’re damn right I made soup. SPLIT PEA SOUP! This is the method that worked for me, based on this recipe from Allrecipes.com, and of course, with my own additions. Plan for about 4-5 hours prep and cook time total.

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INGREDIENTS
2 celery ribs, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
3 large carrots or 10 baby carrots, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 lb. dried split peas
3-4 ham steaks, cubed
3-4 bay leaves
1 and 1/2 quarts chicken stock
1 and 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup white wine
3 tablespoons liquid smoke
2 potatoes, peeled and cubed

METHOD
Melt the butter and olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. Add the chopped carrots, celery, onion and garlic. Cook and sweat them down for up to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a dash of salt to keep them from burning.

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Add the peas, and stir around to get the vegetable flavors incorporated.

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Pour in the chicken stock, the water, and the wine (how Biblical, right?), and give one good stir.

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Toss in the bay leaves and the sliced-up ham chunks.

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Add the liquid smoke, and season with salt and pepper. Cover, and cook on medium-low for 3 hours, stirring occasionally. The soup will thicken as it cooks.

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For the last hour, check the texture of the peas. If they are still somewhat hard, turn up the heat and bring to a hard boil for at least 45 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

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The potato chunks go in for the last hour, to soften up and break down. This also adds to the soup’s thick, unctuous texture.

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Serve in large bowls and eat with gusto and the knowledge that, with a soup this good, the Devil surely cannot possess your soul. This soup is perfect for a chilly autumn day or if you need to start spewing at a priest. The power of Christ compels you, you know.

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A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Both a novel of psychological suspense and genuine supernatural horror, A Head Full of Ghosts is head case of a book…..pardon the pun. I love a book that cleverly uses meta-fiction, and this one definitely refers back to itself in such a funny way, by use of social media. (Speaking of which, there is a funny pic at the very end of this post used on one of the most popular social media sites out there, so keep reading for a good laugh.)

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The advent of reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the others, has turned us into a society where every moment, thought, insight, and personal experience is documented for an audience of millions of strangers. We get validation for every aspect of our lives when we get likes or follows or retweets. This book takes it to an entirely new level, similar to how social media is used in my previous blog The Last Days of Jack Sparks, but here, it documents not just the possession and mental breakdown of a person, but an entire family.

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The book is the story of 13-year old Merry and her memories of her sister Marjorie’s psychological breakdown and subsequent possession – and the TV crew that documented all of it and relayed it to a television audience of millions. Merry is telling the tale in flashback at the age of 23, and recalls her parents’ terror and frustration at Marjorie’s condition, their increasing dire financial straits, and the questions that inevitably arise from such a horrific combination of scenarios.

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Is Marjorie truly possessed by a demonic force? Is she mentally ill? Is she just playing with their heads? Is it child abuse? What makes this book so addictive is that you are never quite sure what is going on. Is the narrator reliable? Who is wrong and what is right? Perception is reality, but then……what constitutes perception? Age? Seeing only what we want to see?

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It’s not so much horrifying – though it is definitely that – as it is uncomfortable. The unease and terror sneak up on you slowly, gradually, disturbingly, and as I got closer to the end, I found myself racing through the pages to see what was happening. If you’re a fan of psychological terror, supernatural horror, and a well-written story that makes you question your own perceptions, this book will definitely send you on a twisted ride.

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In one early scene, Merry is pondering an odd memory of her parents going away for a rare weekend, and wonders if they are leaving because of Marjorie’s behavior, or because of her own strange preference for pasta.

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“Away was the only word the four-year old me remembered. I had no concept of time or distance. Only that they were away, which sounded so weirdly menacing……..I was convinced they went away because they were sick of my eating pasta without spaghetti sauce. Dad had always grumbled about his not believing that I didn’t like the sauce………”

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I love pasta, but of course, it must have some type of sauce. This passage left quite a bit of leeway for cooking, so I decided linguine in a butter-lemon sauce with a creamy lemon chicken piccata was in order, to scare away all those ghosts in my head. This is the method that worked for me, serving 6 people, based on The Pioneer Woman’s delicious recipe. And yes, with requisite tweaks by me. You’re welcome.

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INGREDIENTS
12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pounded quite thinly (great for stress relief)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup flour
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
Juice of 2 whole lemons
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup capers
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
2 lbs fettuccine, or any long pasta of your choice
Fresh parsley for garnishing
Lemon slices for garnishing

METHOD
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the butter and the olive oil. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs, and dredge each one in flour. This is a messy step, so an apron is advised.

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Increase the heat to high, and cook the thighs in the skillet for about 10 minutes on each side. You want them nice and browned. Remove and set aside.

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Saute the shallots and chopped basil for about 5 minutes in the chicken pan juices.

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Lower the heat to medium low, and pour in the broth, the wine, the lemon juice, and the capers. Stir together and simmer for 10 minutes.

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Add back in the browned chicken pieces and pour in the juices they’ve accumulated on their platter. Pour in the capers, cover, and cook on low for 25 minutes.

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Remove the chicken pieces, then pour in the heavy cream, stir together, and taste again. Serve over linguine and garnish with lemon slices.

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We ate this fantastic dish with roasted grape tomatoes and mushrooms, and a gorgeous chocolate mousse cake, in honor of my sister’s birthday.

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As you can see, she is addicted to Snapchat filters. Dork that she is.

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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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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

Thanks to TB for the photography.

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read it several times. Though it’s a very irreverent re-telling of the life of Jesus, I didn’t find it at all disrespectful. It is a fictional retelling, of course, but very much grounded in historical research and definitely holds to the details of Jesus’s life that are in the Bible.

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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, is the story of the life of history’s most famous person told by his best friend and sidekick. Josh – Joshua bar Joseph and who would later come to be known as Jesus Christ – is a serious-minded kid, as you’d guess. Biff, his best friend, is the opposite: loud, rabble-rousing, a total smart-ass, and a total womanizer. He’s pretty awesome.

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Being raised Catholic and to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ as opposed to his humanity, reading this book and seeing another version of Jesus as a man, with the same hopes, fears, desires, and cares, is truly beautiful. The Gospels often portray Jesus in such conflicting terms, though I do realize they were written very much as propaganda to further the newly-hatched Christian religion, but for me, seeing the disparate elements of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John so seamlessly melded into Josh’s character made me relate even more to him.

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The story is told in two timeframes: the life of Josh and the many adventures he and Biff have; and Biff in the present time writing his Gospel of memories and adventures with Josh. The boys travel with their families to Jerusalem for high holy days, encounter Roman soldiers, meet Mary Magdalene  -Maggie – and fall in love with her, and go in search of the three Magi who came to see Josh at his birth. Much of the book is their quest to find Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior – respectively, in Afghanistan, China, and India. Josh learns from the three wise men the tenets of the Tao; the Zen school; and Buddhism, which all affect his later ministry. Biff learns the art of the Kama Sutra, the skills of martial arts and how to kill with a touch, how to create weapons, and how to charm women. In other words, all the things that Josh, as the Son of God and Bringer of Peace, can’t know. They make a great team, as they perfectly complement each other – yin and yang, carnal vs. spiritual.

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Possibly one of the most hilarious and touching moments in this book, and some clever foreshadowing, is when the origin of the Easter Bunny is explained, as a drunken Josh sits on a hill overlooking Jerusalem near Passover, cuddles baby rabbits, and declares “Henceforth and from now on, I decree that whenever something bad happens to me, there shall be bunnies around.” It’s characteristic of the book as a whole – so funny and yet poignantly moving because we all know what is going to happen to Josh. And so it does.

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In modern times, Biff is brought back from death to write his own gospel by the angel Raziel, who is sent by one of the archangels to fetch him. The archangel gives Raziel his instructions and something else to do.

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“Go get the good news, Raziel. Bring me back some chocolate.” “Chocolate?” “It’s a dirt-dweller snack……..Satan invented it.” “Devil’s food?” “You can only eat so much white cake, my friend.”

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Being Easter Sunday, a chocolate Devil’s Food Cake seemed extremely appropriate for my family lunch, especially because my very Catholic grandmother was there, and the look on her face when I told her what we were having for dessert, was priceless. To her credit, she then started laughing, so she gets points for having a sense of humor AND for tolerating me as her granddaughter.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my idol Nigella Lawson’s delectable Devil’s Food Cake recipe, with the requisite flavor tweaks by the Easter Bunny.

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INGREDIENTS
For the cake
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup boiling-hot instant espresso
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 and 1/2 cups plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon almond extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature

For the frosting
1/2 cup instant espresso, cooled
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
10 ounces of dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids, broken into pieces

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F, spray two baking pans with butter spray, and line the bottoms with parchment rounds. Then, mix the cocoa powder and the sugar with the boiling hot espresso.

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Cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy.

Creamed butter

Mix together the flour, baking powder and baking soda together in another bowl.

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Add the vanilla and almond extracts to the butter-sugar mixture, stir to mix, then add the eggs.

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One cup at a time, add the flour to the butter-sugar, stir to mix well, then add the next cup of flour. Do this until all the flour is combined.

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Mix in the chocolate-cocoa-espresso combination, and whisk until well combined and makes a smooth and chocolatey batter.

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Divide the batter between the two baking pans, bake for about 20 minutes, and check on them twice to make sure they are not overbaking. That would suck.

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While the cakes are baking, put the cooled espresso, the brown sugar, and the butter into a small pan over low heat.

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Once bubbling, add the chocolate pieces and whisk until they melt and are mixed together into the butter and thicken into a frosting.

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Let the cakes cool completely before attempting to frost them. Please trust me on this. I’m saving you many dropped F-bombs with this advice. Set one cake round on your fancy cake display and frost the sides and top.

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Set the other cake round on top of the frosted one, and proceed in the same manner. Then, just eat, with a choir of heavenly angels singing in your ear.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Photography by me.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I never liked Death Comes for the Archbishop, probably because it was required reading when I was in the 6th grade. Anything forced is never something I want to do, even when it comes to reading. Isn’t it amazing, though, how different it can be when you go back and read something as an adult? I found depths of character and beauty in this book that were never apparent to my ignorant, youthful self.

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Though of course, reading as a grown-up, I also saw nuances and subtleties I didn’t clue into as a kid, such as the racism that is fairly inherent in the main characters. Well, since it was written before cultural sensitivity training, it makes sense. But there are passages that talk about the Mexican and Native American populations that made up such a large group of the  Father’s parishioners, and they are both called barbarians by a Spanish priest. So it’s quite timely for today, when there is so much racism against people of so many backgrounds, ethnicities, and faiths.

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The story is a fictionalized account of Bishop Lamy, a French Jesuit priest who came to New Mexico in the mid-1800s to help minister to the growing frontier population in northern New Mexico, and whose greatest accomplishment was building the stunningly beautiful Cathedral of St. Francis in Santa Fe. In the book, the character’s name is Father Jean-Marie Latour, and he spends over 40 years in the Santa Fe region. He lives a rather lonely existence, though he makes great friends with other priests such as Father Martinez, who has a lovely singing baritone, and the Olivares. Mrs. Olivares, in particular, seems to garner much admiration from Father Latour, and if you read between the lines, she might be someone he’d have fallen in love with, if that were permissible to a Catholic priest.

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Though various dinners and feasts are sprinkled through the book, my favorite was this passage that details one of the stories told to Father Latour by one of his fellow priests, about Father Baltazar of Acoma Pueblo, who by all accounts, was a horrible tyrant and who took all the choicest fruits and vegetables of the Native Americans he was supposed to care for. (Though he did get his just desserts in the end…..hah!) Father Baltazar was an obese man who thought nothing of working the poor Acoma Indians as slaves to ensure he had the best food and service at his home.

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Friar Baltazar was one of the most ambitious and exacting. It was his belief that the pueblo of Acoma existed chiefly to support its fine church, and that this should be the pride of the Indians as it was his. He took the best of their corn and beans and squashes for his table, and selected the choicest portions when they slaughtered a sheep…………

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Squash and corn together make up a dish called calabacitas, which is truly food for the gods. I grew up eating this dish, as a side for enchiladas or tacos, and later on as an adult, in more creative New Mexican dishes like tamales. It’s pretty much one of the most divine dishes you can eat on this earth. But I’m not at all biased.

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A traditional New Mexico dish, the simplicity is enhanced by using fresh ingredients, like any other recipe. Fortunately, fresh zucchini squash is easy to find in the grocery story and at farmers markets. Fresh corn is a bit harder when not in season, so use good-quality corn kernels from a can. The only thing that is requisite for good calabacitas is green chile. You want a bite to offset the sweetness of the corn and the green crunch of the squash, but if you’re feeding wimpy types, leave it out. Just don’t bring them to my house, because I will turn them away sneeringly.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my Nana Jean’s recipe which I remember so well from childhood. I do add my own tweaks, in the form of chicken bouillon granules, red onion instead of white, and cheese, which melts so gooily and deliciously over the hot vegetables. But cheese is not required, so omit if you so desire.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 green squashes
2 large cans of corn, drained
1 large red onion
4 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon pollo de caldo chicken bouillon powder
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 cup roasted green chile, finely chopped
Optional – 1 cup grated sharp cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese

METHOD
In a large saucepan, melt the olive oil and butter together. This creates great flavor, and also keeps the butter from burning.

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Peel the onion and slice into thin half-moons. Remove the stem ends of the green squash, and cut into cubes.

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Drain and rinse the corn, and then peel and thinly slice the garlic cloves.

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Add the onions to the saucepan, and spoon in the chicken bouillon granules. Stir and cook about 10 minutes. Then toss in the garlic and cook another 10 minutes.

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Add the squash, and season with salt and pepper. Cook on medium heat for another 10 minutes. You don’t want the squash soggy, so test the texture with a fork. Tender-crisp is what you want.

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Add the drained corn. Stir well to mix and cook another 10 minutes.

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This is where you will add the green chile. The smell is divine!

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Turn the heat to low, cover, and let cook for another 10 minutes, to heat through. Sprinkle over the cheese while still hot, so it melts and oozes nicely over the calabacitas.

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Serve as a side dish with enchiladas and rice, as a side for any other chicken dish, or just eat a huge bowl of it on its own. ¡Delicioso!

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My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Thanks to TB for the photography.

This book took me five years to read, but not because it’s particularly long or boring. No, My Name is Red is one of the most entertaining and complex murder mysteries I’ve ever read. The book is told from 12 different viewpoints, including the murder victim himself – a painter in the Sultan’s palace; a Jewess matchmaker; the daughter of the house Shekure; her suitor Black; a dog painted on a wall; three of the murder victim’s colleague painters; Satan himself; the murderer; and the color red. Hence the title.

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I’ve read many books set during the Ottoman Empire, that is, Istanbul in the 17th century, but this is by far my favorite. It’s a murder mystery, a love story, and a very Byzantine – pardon the pun – treatise on the power and nature of art and symbols, politics and religion, and the meaning those concepts hold in everyday life.

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I am not an expert on the Islamic religion, but from this book, I took that representing the human form was required to be highly stylized – to be depicted as Allah would see the individual, not as the artist would – and that depicting anything from the Koran is deeply disrespectful and forbidden because of the fear that the image would be worshiped instead of God. It’s interesting, because I have a Jewish friend and a friend who practices Islam, and the three of us have had long and intense discussions about the nature of religion and God/Jehovah/Allah, and how different religions and cultures have their own ways of depicting the divine.

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The long and very complicated -and let’s face it, mostly warlike – relationship between the Jewish religion, the Christian/Catholic faith, and the beliefs of Islam do have some fascinating parallels and commonalities. They have as many points of differentiation, however, and it was so interesting to read this book and see how art and artists, in particular, were revered and feared in 18th century Istanbul as artists during the Renaissance, but for such different (and similar!) reasons.

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Esther, the matchmaker, is a Jew and carries love letters between Shekure and Black, the two main characters whose love story is a pivotal part of the book. One of my favorite voices in this book, Esther describes this beguiling passage about her own self-perception and the marvelous foods eaten at various ceremonial events.

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I love social gatherings because I can eat to my heart’s content, and at the same time, forget that I’m the black sheep of the crowd. I love the baklava, mint candy, marzipan bread and fruit leather of the holidays; the pilaf with meat……………

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I’ve been wanting to try and make baklava for ages now. I warn you, working with phyllo dough is a pain in the ass. It’s ultimately worthwhile, but my God, it’s fiddly. I would recommend having everything completely ready before you even start working with the phyllo, because it dries up so quickly. I also wanted to try my hand at a good pilaf dish, so I found a yummy recipe on Nigella Lawson’s website.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the old family recipe given to me by a Greek-Turkish acquaintance. The addition of the orange flower water and vanilla are mine. Though I didn’t give a method for the saffron chicken pilaf, the recipe calls for not just the saffron in the rice cooking liquid, but also some bruised cardamom pods. Cardamom is a new spice for me, but a definite favorite! It smells so lovely, light and floral and perfumey and adds such a unique note to the rice, as does the brilliant gold of the saffron threads.

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INGREDIENTS
1 and 1/2 cups water
1 and 1/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon rosewater
1 tablespoon orange flower water
2 tablespoons vanilla

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1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
4 generous tablespoons cinnamon
2 packets phyllo dough
1 and 1/2 cups melted butter

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 350F. Combine the water, sugar, and lemon juice in a pan . Cook over medium-high heat until it boils. Keep it boiling for 5-6 minutes, whisking occasionally.

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Add the rosewater and orange flower water. Remove from the heat, stir again, and decant into a pitcher. Add the vanilla, stir, and put into the refrigerator to cool completely, where it will form a thin syrup.

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Melt the butter in the microwave, and mix the cinnamon with the pecans and walnuts.

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Dampen several paper towels and squeeze out the excess water. Unroll one packet of phyllo dough onto several damp paper towels. Cover immediately with the other damp towels.

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Spray a baking tray with butter spray. Carefully unroll two sheets of phyllo dough onto the baking tray, and brush with melted butter. Continue layering two sheets at a time, brushing each with butter, until you use all the phyllo sheets. (Remember to keep the unused phyllo covered at all times with damp paper towels, to avoid a world of hurt.)

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Sprinkle over the cinnamon-dusted nuts. You may have to press them into the phyllo dough with your hands to make them adhere.

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Repeat the phyllo layering with the second package of dough. Spread two or three sheets over the nuts, brush with melted butter, and continue in this vein until the second package is used up. Pour over the last of the melted butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon.

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Cut across in diagonal lines, then repeat crossways so you form diamond shapes. This is FAR easier in concept than it is in practice. Wear an apron, that’s all I’m saying. Bake for 35 minutes and remove from the oven to cool slightly.

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Pour over half the cooled syrup, let soak in for a few minutes, the pour over the rest. Let sit for 30 minutes, then scarf down.

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The saffron chicken pilaf was simple: cubed chicken thighs marinated in Greek yogurt, lemon juice and a bit of cinnamon and browned and rice cooked in saffron- and cardamom-infused chicken broth, mixed together in a skillet with toasted almonds and fresh green parsley. A divine treat to go with the baklava!

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