The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

I have to say I’m a bit peeved by this book. The Dinner List has a totally fascinating premise that takes that old idea of picking five people you’d want to have dinner with, whether living or dead, and runs with it………..and then, sadly, totally drops the ball. The main character, Sabrina, is having her 30th birthday dinner with her best friend, when unexpectedly, five people show up, including the late, great Audrey Hepburn.

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Yes, Audrey is a guest at this dinner party. Turns out that Sabrina was named after the iconic, eponymous character from Audrey’s film also starring Humphrey Bogart. The other guests are people who Sabrina hasn’t seen for years and all of whom have had a significant impact on her life. Her long-lost father shows up, an influential professor from her college days, and Tobias, who is presented as her ex with whom she lived for many years. So yes, the premise is fascinating and had so much potential to be a wonderful book about our life influences, who we would like to see and talk to, the meaning of life, etc. But irritatingly, it ends up being a treatise on getting over one’s first love. In other words, it’s chick-lit and we all know how I feel about chick-lit. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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It turns out Tobias and Sabrina have split up and she is still trying to come to terms with their breakup. They’ve had a typical long-term relationship – meeting in college, becoming involved, breaking up and reuniting, blah blah blah. Literally nothing in their relationship was unique. They were like any other couple. I think what gradually began to wear on me was the fact that this book has one of the most fascinating literary devices I’ve read about in ages – the dinner party with five people of your choice from history or from real life who can be either living or dead – and uses it as the backdrop for what ends up being a rather pedestrian and boring love story.  (sigh) And of course, the great shocker, the major “wow” moment of the book is something that I had figured out from Chapter 2.  SPOILER ALERT: Tobias is already dead and that’s why she has to get over him and that’s why he showed up to this dinner party.

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Well hell, no one could have seen that one coming. (As I roll my eyes in exasperation.) I mean, come on. If you could pick any five people from anytime in history to break bread with, wouldn’t you, firstly, choose people with whom you could have conversations about the meaning of life, etc? Don’t you think you’d want to talk about their lives, their impact on the world? My five dinner party guests would include Jesus of Nazareth, Cleopatra, Johannes Gutenberg, Barack Obama and Miguel de Cervantes, and I promise you that we wouldn’t spend a moment talking about our love lives. So therein lies the root of my annoyance. I hate to waste valuable time reading a book that ends up being so completely different from what I supposed it to be. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nicely written and again, the premise had so much potential. But the final execution was just……simplistic, pedestrian. Meh. However, the redeeming feature of the book are the food passages, like this one.

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The waiter comes over for the second time and I just jump in. “I’ll have the friseé salad and the risotto,” I say. I send Conrad a look. He nods. “The scallops,” he says. And some of those aphrodisiacs.” The waiter looks confused. He opens his mouth and closes it again. “Oysters,” Audrey clarifies wearily. “I’ll have the same, with the friseé salad.”

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Doesn’t risotto with seafood sound DIVINE? I chose to use shrimp with mine, based on this recipe from The Proud Italian Cook blog.

INGREDIENTS
1 large butternut squash
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 carrot, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 celery rib, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup good quality white wine
4 cups homemade stock. I used my precious last jar of turkey stock from Thanksgiving.
6-7 sage leaves
1 lb raw shrimp, thawed, deveined and shelled
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Peel, seed and cube the butternut squash, and roast at 425F for 20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

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Heat the stock in a large saucepot until simmering, then lower the heat so it stays hot but isn’t boiling.

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Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet, and sauté the carrot, shallot, celery and garlic for about 10 minutes, until fragrant. Sprinkle over some salt at the beginning of cooking.

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Add the Arborio rice to the cooked vegetables, stir together so that the oil and vegetables coat the rice and the rice toasts a bit (called la tostatura) but don’t let the rice burn. Stir for about 5 minutes.

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Splash in the half-cup of white wine and stir again.

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Add in one ladleful of hot stock to the rice and stir until the liquid absorbs. Plan on this part of the process taking about 20-30 minutes so be patient and have your own glass of wine nearby. Keep adding one ladleful of stock at a time and stirring until the liquid absorbs, before adding more. It’s really rather Zen to do, calming and soothing.

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After about half an hour, the rice should have absorbed all the liquid and cooked to a fluffy yet al dente (to the tooth) consistency, meaning it should still have a bit of bite in texture. Add in the butternut squash and stir together to mix.

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In a hot stovetop grill pan, cook the shrimp about 2 minutes per side, until pink and cooked through.

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Add to the rice and squash mixture, and toss over some finely chopped fresh sage. Salt and pepper to taste, and apply to your face. DIVINE!

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Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society by Charles French

Being a fan of anything paranormal, I quite enjoyed Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society, although there were some pretty gruesome parts, too. (And I admit that I was too damn hungry to pause for my usual book-and-food photo, so I improvised and did one with a glass of the wine I used in the recipe and the book itself……….see above.) I mean, I can handle horror and great scares, but I don’t do gore very well. Anyway, this book centers around three scholars who investigate paranormal goings-on. They have an investigative society, and it actually reminded me of the Chowder Society in Peter Straub’s creepy book Ghost Story, except that here, they take a much more active role.

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The three scholars, Roosevelt, Jeremy and Sam, are all grieving in their own ways, and this is part of what bonds them and makes up the very interesting back story. They’ve formed the Investigative Paranormal Society due to their individual interests in the supernatural and when they’re asked to investigate a “haunting” of a teacher’s niece, they instead find that the niece is being slowly possessed by the evil spirit of Maledicus, who’s a true badass evil bastard whose spirit was trapped in a statue in Ancient Rome for his horrific deeds and whose sheer evil spirit is so powerful that whoever takes possession of the statue throughout history is then possessed by his nasty spirit to wreak havoc. And boy, does he!

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Maledicus is pretty horrible in the book, and I had to skip over some of the more gruesome depictions of his torture methods. The characterizations of all the main characters are great, particularly the aunt Helen, but I like strong women. Charles French (you can see more of his writing here) is a really compelling writer, and his overall story hooked me quickly. My only real beef, and this is just my own style preference, was that the characters’ personalities were revealed very quickly in the narration. I prefer to slowly learn about characters through their actions, rather than have everything about them explained from the off. But that’s just me, and a minor complaint.

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Anyway, Michael Bruno is one of Roosevelt’s oldest friends and a Catholic priest in the book, and when Roosevelt asks him to take part in an exorcism attempt to forever rid the world of Maledicus from the body of the little girl, they do it over a delicious Italian meal, which of course, includes a bottle of Chianti. As well it should!

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Marcelo’s was a small Italian restaurant located approximately halfway between Bethberg and St. Bernard’s College. Since both Father Bruno and Roosevelt enjoyed Italian food, it was a natural meeting place for the two men……….They had finished their main courses: Bruno ate Scungilli Alla Marinara, and Roosevelt had Shrimp Scampi. They were sharing a bottle of Chianti. Roosevelt poured another glass for both of them.

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Shrimp scampi is a funny play on words, because the word “scampi” is one of the Italian words for shrimp, so you’re having shrimp shrimp when you eat it. I just love a cute foodie play on words, which is probably why scampi is my favorite shrimp dish to make. I cooked this version, using rosé wine, and it was DELICIOUS! And the best part is you can drink the rest of the wine with the meal! Win-win. Anyway, this is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
3 lbs raw shrimp, shelled and deveined (enough for 5-6 people)
8 cloves of garlic, 4 grated and 4 thinly sliced
5-6 green onions
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup rosé wine
1/2 stick unsalted butter
3 lemons
Fresh parsley for garnishing

METHOD
Slice the garlic into thin slivers.

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Do the same with the green onion.

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Gently saute in a pan with the butter, olive oil, and salt.

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Add the wine and the juice of two lemons and let simmer another few minutes, until the sauce reduces and thickens.

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Toss in the shrimp and let cook until they are pink. Don’t overcook them or they’ll be rubbery. And who wants to eat a rubbery shrimp? Not I!

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Serve over Basmati rice that you’ve cooked in chicken broth, and garnish with the parsley and lemon slices. The sauce is divine, and with that much garlic, you’ll be certain to ward off any evil spirit, even one as god-awful as Maledicus!

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The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

Photography by me.

Are you a Venetian at heart? I am, and any book set in Venice has a special place on my bookshelf. Venice is the most beautiful place on earth, because it shimmers. That’s the only way I can describe it. The waters surrounding the islands, the lagoons with their sea-green waves, the sight of the church towers from Piazza San Marco or Isola di San Michele from the Fondamenta Nuova……….pictures don’t do it justice and I have rarely read a book description that fully does, either. You simply have to visit Venice and see its gorgeous, watery-reflected beauty for yourself.

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The Mirror Thief is set in three separate historical timeframes, and in three different Venices. Venice, Italy is the heart of the tale and where the story of conspiracy, theft, and some very odd metaphysical concepts of time, starts with the story of Crivano, an alchemist who wants to steal the secret of Venetian glassmaking in the late 1500s. Venice Beach, California is literally the midpoint of the book and the historical setting of late 1950s and the beatnik poet scene in which Stanley seeks out the author of the book that has affected him profoundly, and finally, the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2003, when Curtis goes on a quest to find Stanley, and instead, finds the book that has colored his entire life, The Mirror Thief, an alchemical book of magical poetry written about Crivano himself.

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The three timeframes are connected incredibly well, due to Seay’s expertise in both writing and connecting disparate concepts. I was hooked from the first sentence, and although I had to make sure and not lose the threads of the complex storylines and historical timeframes, honestly, this is the most engrossing book I’ve read in years. It also made me consider the concept of mirrors and reflections – do we exist only because we are reflected back to ourselves in a mirror? Can the mirror ever reflect anything but the truth? What is the truth, and how do we see it reflected back to ourselves?

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My favorite line is:  It is difficult, but probably necessary, to remember that books always know more than their authors do. They are always wiser. Once they are in the world, they develop their own peculiar ideas. I’ve never written a book, but I agree with the idea that books do become something completely different than what their authors intended. It’s inevitable, don’t you think? In reading any book, we all bring our own ideas, preconceived notions, heartbreaks, beliefs and convictions.

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A scene where Crivano arrives at an inn in the Rialto area to meet Tristao, one of his co-conspirators, featured some truly delicious sounding foods, including what I took to be another description for risotto.

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One of Anzolo’s Friulian serving-girls has emerged from the kitchen, bearing sweet white wine from Sopron. Before Crivano’s cup is full, a second girl arrives with food: tiny artichokes, rice porridge, Lombardy quail stuffed with mincemeat……………Crivano takes a spoonful of rice porridge – rich with beef broth and mushrooms – and chews it slowly, trying to imagine what Narkis would have him do.

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Risotto – rice porridge – is one of those deceptively simple dishes. It’s essentially stirring liquid into rice for 25-30 minutes until absorbed. Yet, like any other dish that relies on simplicity for its tastiness, it also relies on high-quality ingredients. Arborio rice is what is usually used, or Vialone Nano, which is a bit harder to find where I am. I decided some beef-flavored risotto bursting with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese was in order this Sunday afternoon, based on the method clearly outlined in Chestnuts and Truffles post on making risotto like a Nonna. Ciao, bella!

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INGREDIENTS
1 14-oz jar artichoke hearts
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup baby bella mushrooms (sliced)
3 cups spinach
6 cups beef stock and 1 beef stock cube
1 cup white wine
1 red onion, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup parmesan cheese

METHOD
Saute the mushrooms in half the olive oil and butter, about 10 minutes.

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Add the spinach, mix well and cook until the spinach has wilted. Set aside.

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Heat the beef broth in a large pan. Bring to a low boil and keep it hot.

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In another pan over medium heat, add the rest of the olive oil and butter, and cook the onion and garlic until soft.

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Pour in the arborio rice, and stir. The idea is to get the butter and onion flavors into the rice, and also to toast it a bit, again for added flavor. This is called la tostatura, as the rice toasts. So says my friend and awesome chef Luca Marchiori.

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Splash over the white wine, and give the rice another mix. Then start slowly adding the hot beef stock, one ladleful at a time. Stir each ladleful until the liquid has completely absorbed.

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Continue in this vein, repeating a ladleful of stock and stirring until absorbed. It’ll probably take a good 25-30 minutes. I find stirring risotto very therapeutic, along the lines of making caramelized onions. It soothes the heart and mind.

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When the risotto is al dente, add in the wilted spinach, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed. Sprinkle over the Parmesan and again, stir.

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Serve with more of the same white wine you used for the risotto, and eat with sheer pleasure in your heart, dreaming of Venice.

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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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The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

One of the most fun things about this blog is the opportunity to not just read new books, but also to try new food combinations. Challenging myself to step outside of my usual culinary and literary tastes has resulted in some wonderful meals, and given me the knowledge that I can probably accomplish anything I put my mind too, cookingwise.

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This book, The Mistress of Spices, caught my eye at an estate sale in my neighborhood. There was a tableful of books for sale, and a tableful of jewelry……….and was I torn! Sparkly things! Pages of words yet undiscovered! Who can choose? Not me, so I bought four books and two necklaces for a grand total of $5.00. Best money ever spent.

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Apart from falling in love with the chapter titles, each of which was named after a different spice, e.g., Turmeric, Fenugreek, Neem, Sesame, and so on, this book hooked me with its resemblance to both Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate, tying together the premises of food as medicine, and food – spices, in this case – as the key to opening up the heart. The heroine, an Indian woman named Tilo who is in the guise of an elderly crone, is actually an ancient “Mistress of Spices,” which is a type of genie who unlocks peoples hidden wants and desires with her clever applications of spices.

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Her identity is hidden to keep her magical self hidden from the world, especially those who would steal her talents. Her expertise with the spices also makes her a bit of a magician in the kitchen, affecting people and their emotions through her cooking and food. I’ve said this before and I will say it again. Food is medicine for the body and the soul, and that’s why I’m drawn to certain books that depict the alchemy of food and cooking and their effect upon people. When you cook for people, when you nourish their bodies with what you have created, you are also nourishing their souls.

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“But here is another image. A woman in a kitchen, cooking my rice. She is fragrant as the grains she rolls between her fingers to see if they are done. Rice steam has softened her skin, has loosened hair tied back taut all day……..Into a curry of cauliflowers like white fists, she mixes garam masala to ring patience and hope.”

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Isn’t that just lovely to read and visualize?

Cooking is many things – alchemy, love, magic – and in this book, the spices add to the food a hint of immortality. Which is as it should be, since all things in this world are alchemized into something else, love is eternal, and magic is what happens each day when we wake up and embrace life one more time. This book epitomizes all of those things, and more.

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I don’t care for white rice much these days, finding it tasteless and bland. But I recently discovered the joys of cauliflower rice, and loving the many varieties of Indian curry, I decided to create a chicken curry garnished with cashew and cilantro, and some delicious cauliflower rice to go with, adapted from the this marvelous website.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
For the cauliflower rice:
1 large head of cauliflower, any color you want.
Salt and pepper
1 large scallion, finely chopped.
1 tablespoon garlic oil
1 tablespoon clarified butter (left from this post I made two weeks back)

For the curry:
1 tablespoons garlic oil, divided
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed

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1 large scallion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
3 tablespoons curry paste, any color. I used green here.
1/2 cup of coconut milk
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 cup of chicken stock
1 chicken stock cube
3-4 dashes of fish sauce (nam pla) – a trick I learned from Nigella Lawson
1-2 tablespoons of lime juice or to taste
Handful of cashews, ground in a food processor

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METHOD
Wash the cauliflower and break into florets. Either grate with a cheese grater, or pulse in a food processor, until the cauliflower breaks down into small, rice-like bits.

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In a large saucepan, add 1 tablespoon of garlic oil, a tablespoon of the clarified butter (though if you don’t have it, use regular butter), the cauliflower bits and one of the chopped red scallions. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper, and saute for about 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Using the same saucepan, add the other tablespoon of garlic oil, the other chopped red scallion, and saute until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the turmeric and the garam masala, and stir again.

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Add the cubed chicken thighs, the curry paste, the coconut milk and a handful of chopped cilantro leaves. Stir again to mix well and let the chicken pieces brown and cook for about 6-7 minutes.

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Add the chicken stock, the two stock cubes and the fish sauce. Cover with a lid and let simmer for about 30 minutes. After about a half-hour of cooking,  remove the lid and admire the lovely, bubbling greeny-gold color of the curry. Add in the lime juice, and let simmer without a lid for about 5 minutes more, to thicken slightly. Add in the cashews, stir and simmer another few minutes. I warn you, it smells like citrusy heaven!

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Put the cauliflower rice onto a plate, dollop over a good, thick, unctuous, delicious ladleful of the curry, and garnish with more cilantro, if you like. It’s a delicious dish, rich from the ground nuts and subtly flavored, spicy with the garam masala, and tangy from the lime. The cauliflower rice is surprisingly delicious, filling and has a flavor of its own but does not interfere with the curry. It’s a lovely substitute if you’re looking to omit carbs, and it’s even easier than cooking rice!

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“A warning to readers: the spices in this book should be taken only under the supervision of a qualified Mistress.”

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