The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

You can almost feel the Italian heat baking down, and smell the bougainvillea flowers, as you read this evocative novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Tom Ripley is a young man from New York, struggling to make something of himself. He’s approached by Mr. Greenleaf who mistakes him for a close college friend of his son, Dickie, who has run off to seaside Italy and essentially gone native there, living in a little house with his girlfriend Marge.

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Mr. Greenleaf offers Tom money to go to Italy and persuade Dickie to come back and resume a “normal” life. Tom meets Dickie and becomes caught up in the other man’s life, obsessively. They bond and become great friends, but several flies in the ointment, including Dickie’s quasi-girlfriend Marge and his obnoxious drinking buddy Freddie Miles, soon threaten their close bond.

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What makes Tom Ripley such a fascinating character study, psychopath that he is, is because we can all relate to him – having feelings of alienation and wanting to find an identity that matches our images of ourselves. Ripley is self-aware on a bizarre level, understanding his two identities and even acknowledging what he’s done by justifying his actions to others and himself. Yet for all the evil deeds he does, he’s not a classic antagonist. He is living his “normal,” as we all are, and the fact that I could sympathize and root for him and understand his motivations tells me that this book was written by a master. It didn’t hurt that the characters of Dickie, Marge and Freddie were all such annoying little prigs.

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Set primarily in Italy, then in France, the scenes in these countries evoke so wonderfully the Mediterranean sun and sea, the taste of salt from the ocean, the sound of boats and birds and busy harbors, and the marvelous flavors that these two countries sometimes share. When Tom is invited to Dickie’s house in Italy for the first time, Sunday lunch is being cooked by Marge – a roast chicken and artichokes –  two of my favorite foods. Yum!

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“The climb up the hill to Dickie’s house didn’t seem half so long as before. Delicious smells of roasting chicken drifted out on the terrace……….’I’m waiting for the darn artichokes to get done. You know that front hole. It’ll barely make anything come to a boil.'”

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Having recently gotten my hot little hands on some culinary lavender, I decided a riff on the classic Sunday roast chicken was in order, spiced up with lavender, lemons, garlic, new potatoes and of course, artichoke hearts – a wonderful melding of the flavors of France and Italy. Oooh la la, or as we tend to say here in New Mexico, oooooh a la!

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 large chicken, about a 6-lb roaster will do.
2 large lemons
2 heads of garlic
1 cup dried lavender granules
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups of artichoke hearts, drained and cut into long chunks
4-5 small red potatoes, cut in half
10-12 sprigs of fresh thyme

METHOD
Your chicken should be at room temperature before roasting, so take it out of the refrigerator a good hour before starting preparations.

Pre-heat the oven to 360F. Butterfly the chicken. This is much easier than you might think. Turn the bird breast-side down, tailside facing you, and cut out the backbone using very sharp kitchen scissors. Then turn it over and press down on it so it flattens and looks like a butterfly. Hence the term “butterfly the chicken.” This YouTube video was how I learned, and it was so easy. If a total klutz like me can butterfly a chicken, you most certainly can! Trust me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-8tMEwBnSA

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Once the chicken is laid out nicely in a large roasting pan, salt and pepper it well. Slice the lemons somewhat thinly, and lay them across the skin of the bird. Tuck some of the lemon slices between the skin and the meat, as well. This helps tenderize the bird and gives more flavor to the skin. Keep half of one of the lemons for later.

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Around the chicken, dot the artichoke hearts, the garlic cloves still in their papery skins, and the potatoes. The idea with the garlic is that they will steam inside the skins and come out soft and sweet and mellow and delicious. Everything looks beautiful in the pan, too.

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Pour the olive oil over the bird and the surrounding vegetables, ensuring everything is well-coated. Add a splash of good red wine, then squeeze the juice of the remaining half lemon over the vegetables. For the final touch, scatter over the dried lavender and the thyme sprigs. The scent is heavenly, spicy and floral and warm at the same time.

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Cover the bird and roast for 2 hours. The smell of the bird cooking, mingled with the lavender and all the yummy vegetables, will make your mouth water. At the 2-hour mark, remove from the oven, increase the heat to 425F, take off the cover, and baste the chicken and vegetable with the pan drippings that have collected at the bottom of the pan. Pour in some chicken broth if you think it looks dry. Tuck the uncovered pan back in the oven and roast under the high heat for another 25 minutes, so the skin darkens and crisps up. Keep an eye on it, though, to make sure the vegetables don’t burn.

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Remove the chicken from the oven, sprinkle over some sea salt, and let the dish rest for a good 10-15 minutes. Then serve and eat with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. But don’t actually START singing. You’ll frighten your guests and they’ll start thinking you’re a madman like Tom Ripley or something.

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Probably one of the creepiest books I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something, because I love ghost stories. The Haunting of Hill House is effective because it doesn’t actually show any ghosts, there are no murderers chasing anyone, no demons possessing souls, no vampires sucking blood, no monsters under the bed. There is just the house, which both epitomizes and contains what we should call pure evil.

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I remember reading this book one very hot summer when I was in my early 20s, sitting outside on a shaded patio while the sun blazed overhead. Not a remotely scary environment in which to read a ghost story, and yet I was totally freaked out reading this book. Every noise made me jump, every shadow in my peripheral vision seemed threatening, and I ended up sleeping with the lamp on that night.

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What’s interesting in this book is the house itself is a character. It has as many characteristics as the four people who come to stay in it for a week, studying the supernatural environment Hill House is known for and hoping to evoke otherwordly occurrences. Boy, do they!  The main character, Eleanor, around whom the novel revolves, is probably one of the more irritating characters in literature. She’s an interesting character study if you can get past her annoyingness, though. Is she insane? Is she psychic? Is everyone in the house having a collective supernatural hallucination? Is Eleanor as alienated as she feels, or is she just super self-centered? My God, I wanted to smack her at times! Perhaps readers are supposed to feel sorry for her, yet when she took off up that spiral staircase and made everyone chase her, I found myself snapping at her  “Pull your head out of your ass, woman!”

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Early in the book, as Eleanor makes her way toward Hill House and her fate, she loses herself in imaginings about what her life will be like going forward. She passes a lovely house in a town with stone lions outside, and daydreams of her life there, being waited upon and  served meals.

A little dainty old lady took care of me, moving starchily with a silver tea service on a tray and bringing me a glass of elderberry wine each evening for my health’s sake. I took my dinner alone in the long, quiet dining room at the gleaming table……..I dined upon a bird, and radishes from the garden, and homemade plum jam.

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I wanted to recreate this simple-sounding meal in my own style, but I wasn’t about to go full-on Martha Stewart and make my own plum jam. So I did a little research and found this recipe for roasted chicken with plums, which is Persian in origin with the sumac seasoning, and that sounded marvelous. I added a few of my own touches,using chicken thighs instead of a whole bird, roasting and caramelizing lemons with the plums, and because I am all about roasting vegetables, alongside the chicken I served sliced radishes seasoned with olive oil, garlic and lemon zest.

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
For the chicken:
12 chicken thighs, bone in, skin on
2 lemons , quartered
2 tablespoons ground sumac, found at Middle Eastern groceries or click here
2 tablespoons ground allspice
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
Zest of 1 whole lemon
1 tablespoon cinnamon
Sea salt and ground black pepper
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup fruity wine, red or white. I actually used a rose wine.

For the plums:
2 red or black plums, cut into chunks
2 shallots, finely diced
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
Olive oil
Sea salt and ground black pepper

METHOD

Make sure your birds are at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Lay your chicken thighs skin-side up in a large roasting pan. Mix the sumac, allspice, cinnamon, lemon zest, minced garlic salt and pepper together in a bowl, add the olive oil and pour this over the chicken. Add the lemon, pour over the wine, cover and cook for 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Chop up the plums into rough chunks and mix with the sliced shallots, cinnamon, allspice, salt, pepper, the honey, and olive oil. Mix together and let the flavors combine.

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Add the plums to the chicken during the last 30 minutes  of cooking at 350F, and leave them in when you increase the heat and bronze the thighs at 450F.

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Remove the foil from the chicken, turn up the oven to 450F, and cook for another 30 minutes so the bird pieces get bronze and the skin crisps up. When you remove the chicken for the last time to cool before serving, give a final stir so that cooked plums mingle with the flavors of the bird, the lemon, and all the spices and seasonings. Let rest, and serve with the lemon-zested roasted radishes. A marvelous dish! Exotic, subtle flavors and somewhat complex, with just a hint of the Casbah, yet familiar enough to taste comfortingly of home.

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