Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

I was first given the book Winter’s Tale by a woman who worked with me in a law firm,  several years ago. She was an odd woman, claiming to be psychic and in touch with – in her own words – “the universal forces.”

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She was a practicing Wiccan, though it turns out she was in love with my then-boss and was using her Wiccan powers to try to destroy his marriage so she could have him. I digress slightly, but it was she who introduced me to this wonderful and mystical novel that encompasses magical realism, fantasy, history, metaphysics, and time travel, so I associate her with this novel. I suppose we all have that strange individual who has crossed our paths and made an unusual impression, whether good or bad.

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I love magical realism in books, though in my own humble opinion the Latin American writers do it best. Cases in point: Rudolfo Anaya, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, and pretty much every book written by the late, great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom I blogged about twice previously. But Mark Helprin brings snowy, turn-of-the-century New York City in a slightly alternate universe, into this magically realistic universe so beautifully. The endless clashes of good and evil, love and hate, life and death, and the eternity beyond it all, are described in such a way that you are transported there.

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The love story between Peter Lake, an Irish immigrant who is later granted supernatural powers, and Beverly Penn, the heiress dying of consumption, is stronger than death, stronger than time, and it’s that love story that colors the entire book.

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When I recently finished rereading this book, I was filled with joy and sadness; that such a world exists and that the book containing it had to come to an end. One of the lines that touched my heart and hit me so strongly in the heart was this one:  “Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is shatter time and bring back the dead.” For anyone who has ever loved and lost, whether it be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a grandparent, or a lover, this line is particularly poignant. We all want to shatter time and bring these people back…….whether they have actually passed on from this world or whether it is the love between us that died.

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Peter Lake is on the run from the unusual creature Pearly Soames – devil? demon? – with whom he has previously associated and who now wants to kill him. A magical white horse called Athansor has appeared to whisk him to safety, which he finds in a hidden garret in Grand Central Station. He is able to safely stable the horse, rest, and being hungry from his recent adventures, proceeds to cook himself a delicious meal of seafood stew.

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With his strength renewed, he realized that he was ravenously hungry, and proceeded to cook an excellent bouillabaisse culled from cans of varied fish, tomatoes, wine, oil and an enormous bottle of Saratoga spring water.

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I have yet to meet a combination of fish and tomatoes I don’t love. Bouillabaisse was something I’d yet to try, though, so today, a cold, windy day heralding the beginning of winter, seemed the appropriate time to recreate Peter Lake’s homemade meal.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on methods from Emeril Lagasse and the marvelous The Ultimate Book of Fish & Shellfish by Kate Whiteman, which has a place of honor among my cookbooks. There are many ideas about what constitutes proper bouillabaisse, but the overall consensus is that you can essentially use whichever fish and shellfish you’d like, and make the classic rouille to garnish the bread eaten with this dish.

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INGREDIENTS
1 small roasted red pepper, peeled and deseeded
2 chunks of baguette, torn into pieces
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

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1 egg yolk
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
7 cloves of garlic, minced (4 for the bouillabaisse, 3 for the rouille)
4 cups fish stock
1/2 cup Pernod
1/2 cup clam juice
2 leeks, white part only, washed and cut into rings
Handful of chopped parsley
1 fennel bulb

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Zest and juice of one orange
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, whole
Pinch of saffron threads

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4 bay leaves
8 ripe beefsteak or Campari tomatoes
4 small red potatoes, cubed
1 lb frozen salmon, cut into large chunks
1 lb. frozen cod, cut into large chunks
2 cups frozen shrimp, deveined and peeled but with tails attached
2 cups frozen clams in their shells
Remainder of the baguette, cut into thick slices

METHOD
For the rouille:
Combine the torn-up 2 baguette pieces, the roasted red pepper, 3 of the peeled garlic cloves, the Dijon mustard, the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the salt and pepper in a food processor. Mix until smooth, then slowly add the olive oil.

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Mix again until you have a smooth, thick emulsion. Set aside.

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For the bouillabaisse:
Saute the onion, celery and garlic in a bit of olive oil. Add the bay leaves and peppercorns. Add the leeks and the fennel, and saute for another 5 minutes, or until soft.

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Grate in the orange zest here, and then squeeze in the juice to the broth.

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Add 3 cups of the seafood stock. Stir to mix and simmer another 5 minutes. Then add the diced tomatoes.

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Add the Pernod, the tomato bouillon cube, the saffron, and the remainder of the fish stock. Allow to cook another 10-15 minutes, so the flavors mingle. You’ll be able to smell the saline of the stock and the anise of the liqueur.

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Once your broth has simmered 15 minutes, add a half-cup of clam juice and blend to a thick, smooth consistency with a stick blender. Toss in the parsley.

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Heat the oven broiler at this point. You’ll know why in a moment. Add the potatoes to the broth. Cook another 15 minutes, or until they soften. Add in your fish at this stage, but stagger based on thickness and delicacy. The idea is to have all the fish cooked perfectly. Add the cod and the salmon chunks first and cook for 6 minutes.

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Toss in the clams and enjoy that clatter of shells in the soup pot. Cook another 6 minutes, until the clams open up. Discard any that don’t open, unless you enjoy pain. Add the shrimp and cook until they turn pink.

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While the fish is cooking, toast the baguette slices under the broiler for 1 minute.  Remove, and spread with the rouille sauce.

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In a bowl, place 3 chunks of rouille-smeared bread. Ladle over some of the fish and the heavenly-scented broth. Drizzle over a bit of the rouille sauce.

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This is truly heaven in a bowl for seafood lovers. Rich, delicate and with a mix of green and salty, savory flavors that hit your tongue like a golden kiss. Soooooooooo good, and perfect for a chilly winter’s day.

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The Face by Dean Koontz

I’ve been reading Dean Koontz’s books since I was in 7th grade and came across one in the school library at St. Michael’s Catholic School, and devoured it in three hours. I was hooked from then on, though his books are definitely hit-or-miss. His style has evolved  over the years, from the straightforward horror of serial murderers,  scientifically modified creatures escaped from laboratories, and crazed voodoo killers, to more metaphysical meanderings over the years. He has written about life after death, surviving plane crashes, reincarnations………with his unique style of description. He knows how to create characters that stay with you.

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The Face is my own personal favorite, because it seamlessly melds the metaphysical with the supernatural with the harsh reality of modern-day Los Angeles. The main character, Ethan Truman, is a retired police officer who now is head of security for a world-famous actor. His childhood best friend Duncan Wheeler has recently died – or has he? – and it is this “death” and some very creepy and strange letters addressed to his movie-star employer from an unknown stalker, that propel him into this mystery.

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There is, of course, the serial stalker/killer Corky Laputa who provides the intense antagonist viewpoint, and the child character, Aelfric, who provides Ethan with someone to protect and is at the heart of one of the book’s most throat-grabbing mysteries. It’s a seriously good read, but also made me think about quite a lot of stuff.

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The metaphysical meanderings on life, death, good, evil, Heaven and Hell, are what I particularly enjoyed, because these are questions we all ask ourselves. Does good always win over evil? Is there life after death? What truly awaits us after we die? Are we so certain we’ll end up in Heaven or Hell, or whatever constitutes our personal visions of these places?

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In one scene, Ethan meets up with his former police partner, Hazard Yancy, and one of my favorite characters. Yancy is still on the LAPD, a detective with a huge appetite and heart of gold. Ethan buys him lunch at a local Armenian restaurant, and Yancy essentially orders the entire menu. Ethan has just had an intense scare involving a potential suspect in the stalking case, and he is questioning his entire grip on his sanity, and reality. His order of Moroccan salmon and couscous goes uneaten, though it sounded quite delicious.

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Two waitresses were required to bring all the food to the table. Hazard grinned and nodded as each dish was placed before him: “Nice. Nice. That’s nice. Real nice. Oh, very nice.” The memory of being shot in the gut spoiled Ethan’s appetite. As he picked at his Moroccan salmon and couscous, he delayed bringing up the issue of Rolf Reynerd.

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So this was my latest recipe – salmon with a Moroccan-style sauce called chermoula and lemony couscous studded with fresh vegetables – inspired both by this wonderful book and a great desire for some clean eating after the excesses of Thanksgiving Day.

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INGREDIENTS
For the salmon and chermoula sauce:
4 salmon fillets, deboned and deskinned
6 cloves of garlic, divided
2 tablespoons cumin
Pinch of saffron threads, soaked in a bit of white wine or chicken stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 green onions, sliced
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh mint
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes

For the couscous:
1 cup couscous
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half

METHOD
In a small food chopper, add the garlic cloves, cumin, green onions, saffron, mint, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, some salt, and chili flakes. Pulse until well mixed.

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Brush the top of the salmon fillets with the chermoula sauce and let sit for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat a stovetop grill pan to medium high, and grill the salmon fillets about 3-4 minutes per side. Let cool while you make the couscous.

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Boil the chicken stock with the remaining tablespoons of lemon juice, and pour it over the couscous.  Add the peas and tomatoes, stir briefly, cover with plastic wrap and let the liquid absorb, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

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Serve the salmon atop a bed of couscous, and garnish with the remaining chermoula sauce. Apply to your face.

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The Feet Say Run by Dan Blum

Thanks to AL and ABH for the photography.

The Feet Say Run is a beautifully written, lyrical, and somewhat surreal book. The main character’s time on the island, where the book opens, has a strong, otherwordly vibe that also presents the world around us in, at times, a brutally realistic fashion.

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Hans Jaeger, the narrator, is trapped on an island, we are never quite sure where. He’s there with some other odd characters, so I was immediately put into mind of the TV series “Lost.” It has that kind of magical realism, weird feelings where things seem dreamlike and hyperreal at the same time.

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The theme of questioning one’s life and choices, the “dark night of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross so eloquently put it, is at the heart of this book. Very existentially, Hans remembers his previous life and questions his ongoing existence, because let’s face it, he’s done some pretty crappy things. He worked for the Nazis in  Germany, despising them at the same time. Who among us hasn’t done that, albeit on a less extreme level. We get up, we oftentimes have to do things we don’t like or want to do. But we do them, in order to survive, to exist. As does Hans.

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The storyline arcs between Hans’ entrapment on the island and his struggle for survival there, and his life before, both the awfulness of the Nazis and the beauty of his own love story with Hilda. The lyricism in Blum’s writing – and he is quite an excellent writer – gives the brutal passages an almost fantasylike feeling, like you’re experiencing the horrors through a film of milky glass.

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Hans is not the most likeable character in the world, and there are times when I felt like he was trying to make excuses for what he had done in his life, to try and justify the choices he made that led him to being a Nazi. He’s participated in some terrible things, and given the current state of our country and the fear and anger so many people feel these days, I found it sadly and frighteningly timely to read.

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Two food passages stuck out to me. The first is Hans remembering his mother and aunt having lunch in pre-war Germany at a very posh French restaurant. Hans’ mother is a terrible snob, and she meets her match that day with the waiter. If you’ve experienced a true French waiter, you must know that no one, and I mean NO ONE, outsnobs him. Hans’ mother keeps trying to get the waiter to explain what is in the sandwich, and he continues to needle her by saying there is nothing in the sandwich “except ze bread, madame,” “ze limburger” and “ze tomato.” It gave me the giggles, reading about this dreadful woman being put in her place by a supercilious waiter.

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The second passage takes place on the unnamed island. Andre is one of his Hans’ compatriots, and one day, foraging for food, they come across a cache of dove eggs. Hallelujah, it’s breakfast time! Hans watches Andre with consternation, thinking to himself – quite facetiously – how they will have their feast of eggs.

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Talking to him and listening to his babbling replies. Look, Andre. One of the doves has laid an egg! Are you going to help me cook it? How should we prepare it, do you think? Scrambled? Eggs Benedict?

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I considered doing something involving limburger cheese, but aside from the fact that it is not available in the United States, it really has a horrendous smell. I love a strong, raspy cheese, but limburger is a bit much, even for me. So another strong-scented and flavored cheese seemed in order – gorgonzola! And having done Eggs Benedict in an earlier post, I thought about what else I’d love to eat if stuck on a deserted island, and smoked salmon immediately came to mind. So baked eggs with smoked salmon, gorgonzola and spinach was my riff on the desert island dove eggs. I think mine is probably a bit better.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on too many oeufs en cocotte recipes to mention. The addition of blue cheese is my own.

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INGREDIENTS
6 large eggs
2 cups fresh spinach
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola
6 oz. smoked salmon
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Salt and pepper for seasoning

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F. Spray three large ramekins with butter spray.

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Wilt the spinach in a skillet, adding some salt for added flavor.

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When the greens are wilted, line the bottom of the three ramekins with it.

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Sprinkle some gorgonzola atop the spinach in each ramekin.

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Then add the smoked salmon to each dish, covering the cheese and spinach. Crack two eggs into each ramekin.

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Top the eggs with one spoonful of heavy cream each.

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Sprinkle over more gorgonzola on the eggs, and season with salt and pepper. Put the ramekins onto a shallow baking tray, and bake for 20-25 minutes. You don’t want them to burn or get leathery, just set.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a bit, and put additional strips of the smoked salmon atop each ramekin. 2017-03-05 20.00.58_resized.jpg

Serve with toast and some lovely rose wine.  It’s simple, yet rich and sumptuous, something that a snotty French waiter or a refugee on an island would both be happy to eat.

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And if you’re interested in reading more of Dan’s work, check out his scathingly satirical blog The Rotting Post. If you’re a fan of sarcasm, snark and smart-assery, you will love his writing!

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Thanks to KRB for the photography.

The title was the hook for me with this book, not to mention the book cover. Yes, in this case, I did indeed judge the book by its cover, and I was pleasantly surprised. Though nominally a book for young adults, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a wonderful read, and I found the narrator, 17-year-old Jacob who’s at a crossroads in his life, to be funny and mature.

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One of the great joys of reading this book was seeing the eerie and unusual pictures that illustrate it. These photos are real, but show people doing the most odd things and often, give the impression of the supernatural. Yet they go so perfectly with the storyline. I normally don’t like books with pictures, other than cookbooks. But this book would not be what it is without the strange, sometimes frightening photographs that add such personality to it. It’s a perfect Halloween read!

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The book’s premise is a bit peculiar, pardon the pun. Jacob is an otherwise normal teenager, closer to his grandfather Abe than his parents, and one night finds his grandfather dying, murdered by some ghastly creature. Abe passes along some strange knowledge to Jacob, which prompts a trip to Wales to find someone named Miss Peregrine, a woman who took in Jacob’s grandfather when he was young, during World War II. What Jacob finds on the island where Miss Peregrine has a home for peculiar children is indeed odd, but funny, sad, and amazing at the same time. The peculiar children are just that, all blessed with odd talents or powers that make them “peculiar.” One is invisible, one can make inanimate objects come to life, one can levitate at will, one can set things afire with her hands, and one very peculiar child has a mouth on the back of her neck through which she eats. As Jacob arrives at Miss Peregrine’s house just in time for the evening meal, he gets to witness this odd eating habit, and the veritable feast of fresh fish and seafood, including salmon, firsthand.

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Kids with kitchen duty appeared bearing trays of food, all covered with gleaming silver tops…….sparking wild speculation about what might be for dinner. “Otters Wellington!” one boy cried. “Salted kitten and shrew’s liver!” another said, to which the younger children responded with gagging sounds. But when the covers were finally lifted, a feast of kingly proportions was revealed: a roasted goose, its flesh a perfect golden brown, a whole salmon and a whole cod, each outfitted with lemons and fresh dill and pats of melting butter………platters of roasted vegetables……….”

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So I decided to give salmon a whirl. It’s the one thing that I have always screwed up in cooking, but this method from the blog Damn Delicious looked delicious, and seemed simple enough. As I was cooking in honor of my sister Krista’s birthday and having her, my grandmother Leandra, my aunt Eva and one of my best friends Tina over for lunch, and the Birthday Queen requested salmon (along with a few other goodies), I combined this family celebration with today’s blog post and it’s one of my favorites.

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This is the cooking method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
3 tablespoons of butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
8 salmon fillets, boneless and skinless
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1 cup pecans
1/2 cup of shaved Parmesan cheese
Handful of fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 tablespoon cornstarch

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 275F.

In a food processor, combine the Panko, the pecans, the parsley, and the Parmesan, until everything breaks down and you have a rough, nubbly texture. Like this.

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Rub a generous amount of butter on each side of each salmon fillet.2016-10-23-20-23-00_resized

Dredge each salmon fillet in the Panko/pecan/parsley/Parmesan mixture, again on both sides, pressing the coating in well with your hands. Heat a large grill pan over medium high heat. Liberally spray the grill pan with olive oil spray. Sear 2 salmon fillets at a time for 1 minute per side. Work in batches so the salmon doesn’t get greasy.

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Lay the nut-crusted salmon fillets on a foil-covered cookie tray. Bake for 6-7 minutes and check for doneness. The idea here is that the fish will continue baking and you DO NOT want overcooked, dry salmon. It’s better to have undercooked salmon than overcooked. And if by some unhappy accident you do overcook it, just order a pizza.

While the salmon is baking, make the glaze. It’s a quasi-teriyaki-type sauce and though a bit sweet for my tastes, actually went deliciously well with the nut-crusted salmon. I think the contrast of flavors did it.

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In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the honey, soy sauce, garlic, lemon juice and cornstarch. Whisk together and bring to a boil. Once bubbling, lower the heat and let the sauce reduce and thicken. Keep an eye on it so the sugar in the honey doesn’t burn. Taste and adjust flavors as needed. I have more of a savory tooth so I added more lemon and salt but go by your own palate.

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Decant the sauce and serve with the salmon and whatever side dishes you choose. I made the salmon and glaze with creamy, buttery mashed potatoes, and roasted butternut squash with sage, pecans and blue cheese.

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And of course, it wouldn’t be a birthday celebration without a chocolate birthday cake with chocolate ganache icing. A feast fit for a birthday queen! Happy birthday to my dear sister, Krista! You bug the hell out of me most of the time, but I can’t imagine life without you. I love you!

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