The Homecoming by Andrew Pyper

I love being scared, although I prefer my frights to come from supernatural elements like ghosts, vampires, demons, witches, and the like. Scares that come from real-life terrors like serial killers, home invasions, break-ins, freak me out so badly that I can’t read about them or watch them. It’s just too close to home, pardon the pun. Andrew Pyper is the kind of writer that perfectly expresses both the horror of the supernatural with the eerie “otherness” of human frailty, and he combines them perfectly in this bizarre and creepy read, so even though it ostensibly is about the breaching of one home’s security, it is also about the breaching of our own sense of identity and the concept of what home and security really mean. Which is scary enough to ponder in real life, I might add.

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The Homecoming follows the general trajectory of what you’d expect from a book with this title. Aaron, a surgeon, learns of his father’s recent death and joins his mother and two sisters Bridget and Franny, at the strange estate his father has mandated they must all stay at for 30 days in order to inherit the money in his will. The estate, called Belfountain, is unknown to them all, except it’s not really because Bridget starts remembering being brought there years earlier. So you know some weirdness is going to come at you from left field…………and yuppers, it does!

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They are joined by four other people who claim to be their siblings – you know, the ol’ sister from another mister kind of situation – and they all settle in, trying to come to terms with their father’s “betrayal” of having another entire family, and learning about each new sibling’s odd personal dynamics. And of course, the scary stuff kicks into high gear, including being chased by what appears to be a witch, being stalked by an ax-wielding crazy man, and being cut off from the world against their will. Odd memories start to surface in all of them, and even creepier, they all start to have the same unusual dream about water and being submerged, and you start thinking it’s some kind of supernatural telekinesis. But boy oh boy, it gets so much more messed up than that!

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Pyper is extremely talented at taking traditional horror tropes like demons, vampires, and other such monsters, and cleverly twisting them together with normal human neuroses until you can’t really be sure what the fuck is happening. He did it so well in The Demonologist, one of my favorite books of his, and he does it again here. This book is a twisted combination of Cabin in the Woods, The Haunting of Hill House, and Jordan Peele’s recent creepy-ass film Us, in that it mixes together the ubiquitous isolated house theme with some messed-up family dynamics combined with the whole “strangers who look like us” and turns it into one of the more unnerving books I’ve read lately.

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When Aaron first arrives with his sister Bridget, their mother is already there, taking charge the way any mother might, getting the kids settled in their rooms, feeding them. It’s kind of funny to see these characters trying so hard to hang onto their sense of normalcy and their traditional family roles in the face of such a bizarre situation, but that is likely what any of us would do in similar circumstances. Hold onto our perception of safety and normalcy, until the illusion is torn away and we realize that there really is no safety and no normal in the world.

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By the time we gather around Mom, she’s laid out Tupperware containers of cold roast chicken, broccoli salad, spinach dip. Picnic food. We set to spooning it onto plates, eating as we stand there together, not wanting to return to the unprotected expanse of the dining room’s banquet table. “That shit’ll kill you,” Franny says as I drop a handful of potato chips onto the side of my plate. “And didn’t you used to run four times a week or something? No offense, Aaron, but don’t you think you could lose a few pounds?”

Oh, siblings. Ain’t they just so great?

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Anyway, broccoli salad isn’t something I have made previously, but the idea of a broccoli-chicken salad, despite the negative overtones of church potlucks and picnics from my misspent youth in Catholic school, sounded pretty damn good. And it is Sunday, after all. It’s as close to church as you’re going to get me these days.

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INGREDIENTS
2 heads broccoli, stemmed and cut into florets
6 strips bacon
1 cup mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 green onions, finely diced
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
4 chicken thighs, poached

METHOD
Blanch the broccoli florets by boiling them for one minute, then submersing in a bowl of ice and cold water. That way, they cook a bit but retain their color. (I hate raw broccoli so for me, this step is necessary but if you like raw broccoli, skip it.)

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While the broccoli is blanching, cook the bacon until crisp, drain on a paper towel, and crumble. Set aside.

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Slice the green onions into small pieces, including the stems, and toss into a large bowl.

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Chop up the toasted walnuts and add to the bowl with the onions.

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Finely chop the poached chicken and add to the green onions, the walnuts and the cooled broccoli.

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Add the mayonnaise and the red wine vinegar to the chicken and onions, and mix together well until everything is nicely coated.

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Sprinkle over the bacon, and taste. This is a savory salad, so if you prefer some sweet contrast, add in some raisins or dried cranberries or perhaps some honey. I personally loathe and despise fruit and chicken together in a salad, so I love it just as it is, nice and salty and savory and full of green flavor. But I’m a salty bitch anyway, so it’s perfect for me.

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Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Have you ever read a book that you nearly instantaneously fell in love with? My friend Angela recommended Delicious! by Ruth Reichl, which I’d seen on various lists of foodie books, but dismissed as “chick lit.” Those of you who follow my blog know of my disdain for “chick lit.” Yes, I’m a literary snob and I make no apologies for that. Someone has to hold the standard against horrible books like 50 Shades of Grey and those hideous Twilight books. But I digress.

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The premise is simple – a young lady named Billie with an amazing palate and sense of smell, moves to NYC, gets a job at the food magazine Delicious!, becomes part of their family, becomes close to the Fontanari family who runs what I think must be my fantasy Italian deli store, and discovers a hidden cache of letters from WWII between a little girl dealing with her father’s disappearance in the war, and the late, great James Beard. But that’s just the surface. This book taught me so many amazing things, about libraries, cooking, the nature of family relationships, and exactly how to taste cheese. Oh, heaven!

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One of the things I learned about from this book was how Italians were treated in this country during the second World War. I think of spaghetti and meatballs as one of the most quintessentially American dishes – hello, Chef Boyardee! In point of fact, there was an Italian chef called Boiardi whose cooking techniques helped send preserved food to the Allied troops, and he is widely considered a hero of the war. But there was also a hatred for Italians among many people, because of the fact that Italy had initially sided with Nazi German. So many Italian-Americans were shunned, treated horribly, and in fact, their food was referred to as “the food of the enemy.” Shocking for me to learn, but sadly, not surprising, as we see how many American citizens of other backgrounds and ethnicity are treated in the here and now.

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The Fontanaris – Sal, his wife Rosalie, and their daughter, take Billie under their Italian wing, and invite her to family events left and right. During a celebration of Rosalie’s birthday meal, which she of course cooks herself (no self-respecting Italian mamma would allow ANYONE else to cook a meal!), this is what she makes. Tell me that doesn’t sound heavenly.

She made Jewish artichokes – which were so crisp they crackled when you put them in your mouth – lasagna, porchetta, and a puntarelle salad.

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I could not find puntarelle (no surprise as it’s hard to find in the States) but the recipe I found said that endive leaves could be used. So I used endives, which have one hell of a peppery bite. The anchovy vinaigrette was absolutely perfect with it, and I give the method for it below, as well. But the star of this blog post is the Jewish-style deep fried artichokes, which was the first time I’d tried making them this way. May I just say they were sooooooo delicious! The prep time for the artichokes is a bit of a pain in the ass, so be warned. But the end result is worth it.

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Method courtesy of Tori Avey’s awesome website. She is one great food historian!

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INGREDIENTS
2 large green globe artichokes (or purple Romanesco if you can find them)
2 cups olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 large lemons

4 endives, thinly sliced
3-4 garlic cloves
6 oil-packed anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Small sprinkling of sea salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

METHOD
Rinse the artichokes, and trim the stem off the bottom, and pull off about 4 layers of the hard, outer leaves.

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Slice off the top part of the denuded artichoke so you have the bottom halves only.

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Cut the artichokes in half, and using a spoon or melon baller, remove the fuzz from the choke hearts. It’s very bitter so get all of it.

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Rub the artichokes with lemon, and soak them in a bowl of ice water and more lemon juice to keep them fresh and prevent browning. Soak for about 10 minutes while you prepare the salad.

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Slice the endives into ribbons.

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Finely mince the garlic cloves and the anchovy fillets. Mix together with the olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice and salt. Pour over the endive slices, mix well and chill in the refrigerator while you finish the artichokes.

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Remove the chokes from their ice bath, pat try, then steam them for 15 minutes in a steamer basket over boiling water.

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Heat the 4 cups of olive oil on high in a in a large frying pan. Slice the artichokes into quarters, and add to the very hot oil. Be careful of spatters.

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Cook for 7 minutes on each side, so they get nice and brown and crispy and crunchy. Total cook time is about 15 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

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Squeeze over lemon juice, and cram down your throat along with the peppery, deliciously bitter, garlicky endive salad. It is one of the best things I’ve made yet! YUM!

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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Thanks to JG for the photography.

Set in a slightly alternate universe, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been touted as the Harry Potter for adults. It’s far more than that, however. Set in England during the Napoleonic wars, its a lengthy book that delves deeply into the mythology of Faerie.

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One thing that has always stood out to me is the lack of a true mythology in England. There are the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but that’s not an origin myth, nor are there gods and goddesses in British lore. Faeries and other interesting creatures abound but there is no real etymology, similar to the ancient Egyptians or Mesopotamians or Aztecs. Just something to ponder while you’re cooking.

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Anyway, back to the book. I enjoyed it, it though it did take me a few tries to really get into it. Not because the story wasn’t fascinating, but because of THOSE DAMN FOOTNOTES! I loathe and despise footnotes. Probably left over from my time in graduate school,  because the amount of books I had to read with footnotes, and all the papers I had to write with footnotes literally, at times, drove me to drink! Not that it takes much, truth be told.

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In a nutshell, Mr. Norrell is a quiet, somewhat hermited English gentleman who has spent most of his life amassing the world’s biggest library on magical books. When he is approached by a local guild of magical theorists, he demonstrates his practical magical ability by bringing the stone statues on the local church to life. He is thus brought to London to become the king’s magical advisor, and it’s there that he encounters Jonathan Strange, a young gadabout who is looking for a career so that his love, Arabella, will finally marry him. He takes up the study of magic from Mr. Norrell, becoming far more adept at the magical arts than anyone would have ever dreamed.

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There are intertwining stories involving The Raven King, the magician Vinculus, and Lady Pole and her subsequent enchantment when she is ostensibly brought back to life by Mr. Norrell. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out Mr. Norrell is not really much of a magician at all, as his skills and spells are all given to him by The Gentleman With Hair Like Thistledown. The story alternates between the England of the day, and Faerieland of the night, where people dance and dance until daylight, and return to their awakened selves still under the influence of Faerie.

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Being England, there was much mention of traditional British food such as roast beef, gravy, scones, Yorkshire puddings, and other such fare. Having never had fresh beetroot and a hatred of the disgusting canned stuff I had to eat as a child, this passage caught my attention.

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He wore a mourning ring on the fourth finger of his left hand with a thin strand of brown hair inside it and Sir Walter noticed that he continually touched it and turned it on his finger. They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.

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Beef and beet root sounded unusual, and after recently coming across several references to roasted beets in the NY Times Cooking section, doable. And if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you’ll be familiar with my love for cheese. Cheese is God. Next to wine and coffee, that is.  So I thought I’d combine steak, roasted beets, and blue cheese.

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I marinate my meat in olive oil, red wine, lemon juice, Worchestershire sauce, roasted garlic cloves, and salt and pepper. The golden rule of grilling is oil the meat, not the grill, or everything will smoke like hell. And make sure the meat is at room temperature before grilling. Otherwise, just order pizza and call it a day.

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This is the method that worked for me, based loosely on this lovely recipe at Olivia’s Cuisine, but of course, with my own added twists. Gotta be unique, you know!

INGREDIENTS
1 large steak, about 1 inch thick, marinated using the method above
3 beets
1 large sweet potato
1 cup of walnuts
5 cups fresh spinach
1 cup blue cheese crumbles
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
5-6 roasted garlic cloves (use from the steak marinade)
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and heat an oiled, stovetop, ridged grill pan. Yes, you can multitask!

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Slice the sweet potato into thick pieces.

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Then slice the beets. I highly advise wearing an apron and possibly kitchen gloves for this part. And don’t wear white, unless you want to look like Lady Macbeth.

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Lay the potato and the beets on a parchment-paper covered baking tray, and pour over some olive oil. Roast for 45 minutes, checking to make sure they don’t burn.

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While the veg are roasting, cook the steak on the grill for 8 minutes total, flipping every minute so that it cooks evenly, and gets those beautiful grill mark stripes. Let cool, then slice into similarly sized chunks as the beet and potato.

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In a dry, nonstick pan, toast the walnuts until just brown.

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Remove the potato and beets from the oven and allow to cool. Sprinkle over some sea salt, and in a large bowl, combine with the spinach, the steak slices,  and the toasted walnuts. Toss together well.

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Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the steak pan juices and the garlic cloves from the marinade, and the blue cheese, in a blender or food processor, to make a dressing. Add a bit of salt and pepper, and pour over the salad.

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It’s DAMN delicious! Fantastic with a strong red wine, the flavors are amazing and the roasted beets are amazing, nutty and sweet and perfectly textured.

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