Ode to Tomatoes (A Poem) by Pablo Neruda

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been big on poetry. The rhythm and meters necessary to appropriately read poems just bog me down. I love hearing poetry read by someone who understands how it should be enunciated, but when I try to read poetry, either in my head or out loud, I sound like an idiot. Well, with the exception of the poems of Pablo Neruda.

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Neruda is my favorite poet in all the world. He writes in a sensual, lyrical rhythm that is a gorgeous combination of the magical realism so common in Latin American writing, and a pure, romantic worldview centered around love. His arguable masterpiece of love poetry is his Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, though I personally love Cien sonetos de amor (100 Love Sonnets). Cien sonetos, in my humble opinion, is probably one of the most beautiful and erotic collections of poetry in the world, mature and beautiful and quite sensual. I highly recommend you read them if you haven’t already.

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As much a political figure as a poet, Neruda was born Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto in Chile. His poetry was considered beautiful, avant-garde, and at times, very subversive to the repressive government in his home country. Highly respected as both a writer and a political figure, he traveled extensively throughout the world, both as a diplomat and after he was forced into exile by after Chile outlawed Communism. A believer in pure Communist ideals, he was associated such other exalted revolutionaries as Garcia Lorca, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Allende. It is believed he was killed by the Pinochet government, which he had fervently criticized. Proof that words can be as powerful as any other weapon, if used correctly.

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Though I adore Neruda’s love sonnets, the Odes he wrote in homage to everyday, normal items such as food, are my absolute favorites. He wrote odes using these mundane objects as personification of the human experience. Odes to a tuna he saw in the marketplace, golden lemons, pearly onions, jade-green artichokes, ruby and topaz-colored wine, and tomatoes, comparing the crimson flesh of the tomato to the bleeding and suffering of mankind, but also finding the sheer joy in these common foods.

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Being both a reader and an avid cook, I’ve always found his odes to food so filled with pleasure and sensuality. It’s interesting that Neruda is as comfortable detailing his political beliefs in a logical manner as he is describing the eroticism of kissing his lover or the joys of drinking wine or eating a tomato.

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The street
filled with tomatoes,
midday,
summer,
light is halved like
a
tomato,
its juice runs
through the streets.
In December,
unabated,
the tomato
invades
the kitchen,
it enters at lunchtime,
takes
its ease
on countertops,
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among glasses,
butter dishes,
blue saltcellars.
It sheds
its own light,
benign majesty.
Unfortunately, we must
murder it:
the knife
sinks
into living flesh,
red
viscera
a cool
sun,
profound,
inexhaustible,
populates the salads
of Chile,
happily, it is wed
to the clear onion,
and to celebrate the union
we
pour
oil,
essential
child of the olive,
onto its halved hemispheres,
pepper
adds
its fragrance,
salt, its magnetism;
it is the wedding of the day,
parsley hoists its flag,

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potatoes bubble vigorously,
the aroma
of the roast
knocks at the door,
it’s time!
come on!
and, on
the table, at the midpoint
of summer,
the tomato,
star of earth, recurrent and fertile star,
displays
its convolutions,
its canals,
its remarkable amplitude
and abundance,
no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness.

Isn’t that just beautiful? In honor of this magnificent poet, I decided to create an homage meal that incorporated tuna, onion, lemon, tomatoes, artichoke, and of course, wine. This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous recipe from Beauty and the Foodie, creating tuna-stuffed tomatoes alongside lemon-steamed artichokes and a beautiful, garnet-hued Chilean wine. I do think Neruda would approve wholeheartedly of this meal created in his honor.

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INGREDIENTS
2 large, ripe tomatoes
1-6 ounce can of good-quality tuna, drained and flaked
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/2 red onion, finely minced
1/2 celery rib, finely minced
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1/2 tablespoon Italian parsley, finely minced
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper
2 slices cheddar cheese
METHOD
Pre-heat your oven to 400F and spray a baking sheet with olive oil spray. While the oven heats, saute the diced onion in a bit of olive oil and salt, just until it’s translucent.
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While the onion is cooling, cut the tops of the tomatoes off about 1/3 from the top. Scoop out the seeds and pulpy juices, saving some.
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Drain the tomato halves upside down on a plate while you prepare the tuna salad. Mix the now-cooled onion with the flaked tuna, the celery and parsley, the tomato seeds and the lemon juice.
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 Add in the mayonnaise and mustard, and season with salt and pepper.
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Fill each tomato half with the tuna mixture, and top with a slice of cheddar cheese.
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Bake for 15 minutes, or until you see the cheese getting meltingly golden.
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While the tomatoes are roasting, boil two trimmed and stemmed artichokes in salted, lemony water for 15 minutes. Drain and allow to steam for another 5-10 minutes. Melt some butter and lemon juice in a bowl, and season with salt.
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Serve the luscious, meltingly good stuffed tomatoes on a platter with an artichoke, and with a lovely glass of Chilean wine, and enjoy the visual poetry of this ode to good food.
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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
4 teaspoons sea salt
4 cups all purpose flour
1 cup mixed green and black olives, chopped
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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Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

An interesting microcosm of history, Salt essentially takes us back through the known history of the world, and analyzes how this humble little rock – the only rock humans can eat – and how it has had a transforming effect upon civilization. To be honest, however, there were large chunks of the book that weren’t terribly interesting, so I’d veer from jaw-aching boredom to total fascination. What I enjoyed the most were the snippets of specific cooking history – obviously – and the recipes utilizing salt as a preservative from ancient times.

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I am not normally a fan of non-fiction, and about the only non-fiction books I’ve read recently or blogged about are food memoirs. I read to escape our sometimes-mundane existence, so the last thing I want is to be bogged down in lengthy details of reality. This book, however, took me on a journey spanning the globe and timeline of the world, from ancient Rome, where Roman soldiers were actually paid in salt, hence the term “worth his salt” to modern-day Cajun country where shellfish are salted and preserved.

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Salting has been in use as a food preservative since time immemorial, which if you think about it, has a direct effect upon health, winning battles, and otherwise having a culture and society survive and flourish. It is believed to keep evil spirits away, and has been used in medicine to draw moisture and infection out of wounds.

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The science of salt is dull, but not being a scientist or a linear thinker, that’s just me. I find salt interesting insofar as it spices up food, acts as a cleaning agent for my cast iron pans, and I also use it sprinkled across all of my doors and windows in my home to keep out negative energy and evil. Laugh if you want, but for me, it works.

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Some of the more fascinating tidbits I learned from this book include: the fact that Gandhi’s famous march against the British was in protest of salt restrictions; one of the reasons why George Washington fought against the British was against salt shortages; that flamingos get their brilliant pink hue from salt; that salt in the oceans is what keeps our fish alive; that anchovies are the basis for Worchestershire sauce; and that without salt, we wouldn’t have things like soy sauce, cheese, preserved anchovies or preserved walnuts. Which would seriously suck, because not only are cheese, walnuts and anchovies among my favorite foods ever, but they also make up the base of today’s gastro-porn recipe, based on these two passages from the book.

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Since the time of ancient Greece, anchovies have been the most praised salted fish of the Mediterranean, and since the Middle Ages those of Colliore have been regarded as the best salted anchovies in the world.

By the seventeenth century, the English had discovered that salted anchovies would melt into a sauce. This practice may have existed centuries earlier on the continent, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, anchovy sauces became extremely popular.

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Not having been raised to eat anchovies, I didn’t try them until adulthood when I first made pasta alla puttanesca. I was hooked on these little salty nuggets of flavor from that day on. And for all those people who freak out over anchovies in their food, calm the f*ck down already. You can’t even taste the fish, it just gives a lovely, salty flavor. So get out of your comfort zone and eat an anchovy! Or make this recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup olive oil
6-7 garlic cloves
8 anchovy fillets
1 lb. spinach spaghetti (or whatever type you like)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
Fresh ground black pepper
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

METHOD
Boil your pasta water, salt it, and put in the pasta. Cook until al dente, roughly 7 minutes but try it first. Al dente texture varies depending on the type of pasta you use.

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Slice the garlic cloves into thin slivers.

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Chop the walnuts and toast them in a dry non-stick pan until they brown and you can smell their nutty scent. Set aside.

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In the same pan, add olive oil and saute the garlic cloves for up to 10 minutes.

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Chop the anchovies and add them to the garlic and oil. Cook on medium low until they begin to melt and break down.

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Drain the pasta and reserve one cupful of the cooking water.

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Add the cooled walnuts and some of the chopped parsley to the anchovies and garlic, and add in a bit of the pasta water, which helps the sauce thicken and amalgamate, due to the starches released during boiling.

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Grate in the Pecorino Romano cheese, add in the lemon juice, stir, then take a tongful (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) of pasta and add it to the sauce in the pan, doing that cool twirly motion that all the best Italian chefs make look so very easy.

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Cook another couple of minutes, just to make sure the cheese melts, then serve. WOW! The anchovy, lemon, parsley, walnuts and cheese are such an amazing combination. Please try this, if only to challenge your preconceived notions about anchovies.

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The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

There are three celebrity cooks  – Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson and Emeril Lagasse – whom I love, but who are as much shrewd self-marketers as they are cooks. Then there are the three honest-to-God gourmet chefs whose writings have heavily influenced my own cooking and writing. Julia Child, the Goddess; Clarissa Dickson Wright, of Two Fat Ladies fame and an amazing food historian as she is a chef; and last but not least, my dearly beloved Jacques Pépin, who I remember watching on PBS as a little girl and being fascinated by how easy he made it all look.

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Jacques Pépin is my hero, for many reasons. He has had more than his share of trials and tribulations, and had to relearn many skills and reinvent himself many times. He survived a terrible car crash that could have permanently taken away his arm movement, and thus, his ability to cook. He has persevered to become the Grand Master of chefs in the world, and he continues to cook and learn and share.

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Many of his family memories and anecdotal stories are those that we can all relate to. He and his brothers learned to cook very early, working in their mother’s cafe, which served hearty buffet-style meals at what would be the equivalent of $1 today. I can’t even imagine having such deliciousness as a steak with frites for that amount!

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My favorite of his stories is when he goes to visit the late, great James Beard (of the Beard Foundation and one of the world’s great chefs) and is nearly kicked out for bringing him salmon baked in a rich, buttery sauce. Beard is in the hospital for angina, and so of course, what better for the heart than some butter! I laughed out loud reading this section.

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This beautiful crystal bowl was a Christmas gift from my dear and wonderful friend Richard. Had to show it off!

Peppered throughout the books are recipes that all have special meaning for Pepin, including his mother’s cheese souffle, her apple tart, a salad of dandelion greens, and what sounded to me like a plate of heaven – Ed Giobbi’s Primavera Pasta. Now, this recipe should by rights be made in the late summer when home-grown tomatoes are deeply red and ripe and bursting with flavor. But I figured, to hell with it. I found as good of quality tomatoes as I possibly could, let them ripen a few more days, and made this in the winter. And it was delicious, simple, and full of flavor.

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This gorgeous glass cutting board was another Christmas gift, this time from my beloved Aunt Sandy. Guess I was a good girl to get such great gifts! 

INGREDIENTS
5 large, ripe beefsteak tomatoes
Handful of fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
Sea salt and ground pepper
2 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil (my flavor addition)
1 tablespoon finely grated garlic
1 pound farfalle (bowtie) pasta
Abundant boiling and salted water

METHOD
Heat the water to boiling point, add a generous handful of salt, and cook the farfalle for 8 minutes, or until al dente, just cooked but still with a hint of firmness. Reserve a cupful of the pasta cooking water and set aside.

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Slice the tomatoes lengthwise and deseed them. Put them in a large bowl and add the salt and pepper. Stir and leave a few minutes.

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Add the garlic, then the chopped basil, and stir again to mix the flavors. Pour in the lemon olive oil, and give another good stir.

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Add the cooked pasta to the tomatoes in the bowl, stir, and then add in a bit of the hot cooking water. This helps the starches in the pasta emulsify and helps make a sauce.

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Serve hot, with generous handfuls of shaved Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese. It’s truly delicious, strongly flavored but light and fragrant. I can imagine eating this in the south of France with a glass of rose wine with Chef Pepin himself. Wonderful!

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Homme Fatal by Paul Mayersberg

While digging through my bookshelves the other day, I came across Homme Fatal, a pop fiction novel I’d bought years ago and held onto because the story was so fascinating.  Though quite a smutty novel, I primarily held onto it because the story, told about the same events from two viewpoints, had a sleazy, 1940’s film noir vibe to it, which I always like. Kind of Raymond Chandler meets Hugh Hefner.

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The premise is simple: a man named Mason becomes sexually obsessed with a woman he sees dragging a dead body down a hotel corridor. The woman, named Ursula, ends up coming to work for him in his office, and his obsession with her grows. But…….who is truly the one obsessed here? When did the obsession start? Which of them is more obsessed?

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What’s so great about this book is that Mason and Ursula both tell their sides of the same story, and you see exactly how twisted this obsession is on both their parts. I personally have always found the concept of obsession fascinating, particularly when you observe it in people who are otherwise very controlled and intellectual, because they are the last ones you’d ever think would be controlled by something so emotion-based. Obsession is a fascinating thing to study in others. Just beware that you don’t find yourself becoming obsessed, too!

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One of the other reasons I like this book, aside from its trashy noir style, is the fact that it begins and ends here in my home state. It is primarily set in Los Angeles, and all the sordid glamour of that town is well described. But the hotel where Mason first sees Ursula is in Artesia, New Mexico, a tiny, dusty town in the southern part of the state, not known for much other than oil fields and refineries; and the book ends in the Sandia Mountains, the beautiful, rose-colored mountain vista that frames my hometown of Albuquerque directly to the east.

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And taking place mainly in Los Angeles, there were of course several great foodie references. The one I enjoyed the most is the part where Mason is secretly following Ursula, and she meets Laszlo, her astrologist (how L.A. can you get, right?) in a cheesy Mexican restaurant. They both down margaritas and Ursula, in nervous hunger, wolfs down guacamole and chips.

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Now, guacamole is probably the easiest thing to make in the world, and this is really more of a method than anything else. There are many different ways of making it, though, and depending on who you talk to, it can have jalapeños, cayenne, lemon, lime, tomatoes, etc. Nigella Lawson, whom I worship as the Goddess that she is, made a version with blue cheese. I realize this is the season of excess, but that’s a bit too much for me. And of course, being from New Mexico and with the New Mexico references in the book, I had to make my grandmother’s guacamole with Hatch green chile.

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This is the method that works for me, every single time. I am kind of embarrassed to be presenting it here because it is so simple, but what the hell, I already divulged my secret love for trashy fiction above, so I’m sure my literary reputation is already down the tubes. FYI that I made this for a party I had on New Year’s Day, so the amounts are large. Feel free to scale down as needed.

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INGREDIENTS
10 large, ripe avocadoes
1 cup of lime juice, either fresh or bottled
3-4 tablespoons sea salt
1 generous cup of New Mexico green chile, roasted and chopped.
12 grape tomatoes
6 garlic cloves and a generous handful of fresh cilantro

METHOD
Halve the avocadoes by laying them on a cutting board and slicing in a circular method. Don’t go against your grandmother’s advice and hold up the avocado in your hand and slice it in a circle, because THIS will happen. Yes, Nana, I know. I know.

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In a large bowl, scoop out the green flesh of the avocadoes.

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Mash up the avocadoes. I use a potato masher because it’s easiest. I once tried using the food processor. Very bad idea. I won’t say what it looked like, but think of the pea soup scene with Regan in The Exorcist and you’ll get the gist.

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Dissolve the salt in the lime juice in a measuring cup. This is a great trick because it ensures the salt is mixed up in all the avocadoes. Note: Don’t get salt or lime in your sliced-up finger. Your neighbors won’t like the screams.

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Pour over the salty lime juice on the avocadoes. Mix together.

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Add in the green chile and mix again.

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Mince in the garlic cloves and mix again.

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Slice the grape tomatoes into small circles, and toss them into the mix. Stir, and taste for seasoning. This is the point where you can add more lime or more salt. Avocadoes soak up flavor, so even if you think you’ve added plenty of salt or lime, you may find you need to add more. I usually do.

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Chop up the cilantro, and add most of it to the guacamole. Stir together so that the cilantro is well mixed.

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Garnish the top of the guacamole with the remaining cilantro and serve with tortilla chips, or with anything you want. It’s great with taquitos, with chicken, with anything savory. If you have any leftover, it’s delicious on toast with a fried egg on the side, as a post-party breakfast.

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