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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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 Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I didn’t read this book until just a few months ago, and I could kick myself for not having devoured it sooner. Such a marvelous universe, this alternate world of circuses and magic and love. It actually put me in mind of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, in that sense of whimsical magic and a slightly odd world similar to our own, but one much more unusual, spellbinding and mystical.

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Celia and Marco are the proverbial star-crossed lovers, though in this case, they are also opponents in a seemingly eternal game of spells and magic set in a mysterious circus. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been fascinated with the circus. It’s always had a dreamlike, slightly off-kilter sense to me, the striped tents, the calliope music, the death-defying feats of acrobats and contortionists swinging high above or twisting themselves into improbable shapes…..and the ringmaster himself, whip in hand. (In fact, if you’re into circuses and the unusual and/or supernatural, you’ll love the podcast The Magnus Archives, which has a very creepy and weird circus as a main storyline, so give it a listen if so inclined.)

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The circus itself appears overnight, with its attendant staff. Black and white and red are its colors, and it is the backdrop for Marco and Celia, who initially do not realize they are meant to be in opposition to each other, to perform their illusions and spells. They have been trained since they were children for the competition by their respective father figures, both of whom are total and complete bastards. Of course, they fall in love but it’s not a love that is easy nor does their path run smoothly. Well, it never does, does it?

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It’s not a romance, though the love story at its heart is pivotal for the book. With the circus called Le Cirque des Rêves – Circus of Dreams – it would be more accurate to say it’s a gorgeous, dreamlike swathe of crimson velvet words, ice clouds of images, mystical spells that turn clothing into birds, and just an overall sense of magic and mystery. Even the more minor characters are lushly described, and all play a key role in how the ultimate destiny of the circus comes about. Chandresh is one of these side characters who plays a huge part in the outcome. He hosts divine midnight dinner parties for many of the book’s magicians, bringing together the main characters in some of the most sumptuously described food passages I’ve read in ages.

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The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers. Often diners remark that they are too pretty, too impressive to eat, but they always find a way to manage.

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So the figs. Oh, the figs. A delicacy that I can only get a few times in the early autumn, I had to do something with this amazing fruit that I love so much. Not being much of a sweets eater, I thought something more savory would be delightful. Hence, prosciutto-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese and glazed with a bourbon-butter sauce seemed a simple, yet delectably delicious way to enjoy this amazing fruit.

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INGREDIENTS
6 fresh figs
12 slices prosciutto
1 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup bourbon whiskey
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Sea salt for sprinkling

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Slice each fig in half lengthwise, to make 12 fig halves.

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Using a melon baller, scoop out some of the fig.

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Stuff each fig opening with a teaspoon of blue cheese.

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Wrap a slice of prosciutto around each stuffed little fig.

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Repeat with the other figs, and lay out on a baking tray.

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Bake for 12-15 minutes, until the prosciutto crisps and you can smell the mingled scents of sweet fig, salty prosciutto. and and savory cheese oozing together.

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While the figs are baking, melt the butter and brown sugar and add the bourbon. Cook on high and make a reduction of thick, luscious brown syrup.

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Remove figs from oven, and gently pour the bourbon syrup over them, and sprinkle over some sea salt. Allow to cool, and cram down your throat. You could say they’re magically delicious!

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The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

Any book set in Venice is always moved to the top of my reading list. And of course, any book set in Venice about cooking and food is going to have the most special place in my heart. The Book of Unholy Mischief definitely takes the cake here! Luciano is the narrator, a young boy who is rescued from homelessness, poverty and theft on the streets of Venice. His rescuer is Chef Ferrero, who is chef to the Doge of Venice himself, and when he saves Luciano, he takes him back to the Doge’s Palace, cleans him up, and gives him a job as his apprentice. Ferrero is no ordinary chef, though. He is a rock star! In the late 1400s, not many chefs would be so adventurous as to try food from the New World such as potatoes, but Chef Ferrero does. He is also at the center of a conspiracy theory that encompasses Luciano as the book progresses……….think Chocolat meets The Da Vinci Code……though that is oversimplifying it somewhat.

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Luciano continues his education in the Doge’s kitchen under Ferrero’s tutelage, learning more about food than he ever dreamed – a typical bildungsroman, but set among the wealthy and learned of Venice. Of course, the plot is not all about food though – a mystical book purporting to give immortality to those who can decipher its secrets is said to be in Venice, and with his native intelligence, Luciano starts to suspect that Chef Ferrero (who he has come to see as a father figure) might well possess this book and be using it in his innovative and magical cooking techniques.

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Well, hell. A book about food, about cooking, about mystical books, about Venice………of course I had to read it! All my favorite things all in one place! The food descriptions, in particular, are enough to make any foodie weep with joy as the sensual and beautiful pleasure of cheese, wine, meat, olives, cakes, spices and herbs, seafood, are detailed in amazingly graphic and drool-inciting images and words. Even humble foods like onions, which we all tend to overlook, are given a power when glorified and honored by the Chef himself as he talks about the effect of food upon the human psyche.

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My eyes watered from the onion fumes, and the stinging tears diverted my curiosity. I aked, “Why do onions make us cry?” Chef Ferrero shrugged as a tear slid down his cheek. “You may as well ask why one cries in the presence of great art, or at the birth of a child. Tears of awe, Luciano. Let them flow.” I wiped my eyes but the chef let tears roll freely down his face. A tear dripped from his chin as he scooped up the diced onion for the stockpot. His awe would season the soup.

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I just love that passage. It exemplifies the joys of the most simple foods in cooking, and also reminds me that it’s the most simple and humble of foods that create the most awesome flavors. How boring and tasteless most savory dishes would be without the addition of onion? I shudder to think. And with that in mind, I was inspired to make onions the star of a dish instead of an ingredient, so here we go with roasted onions with fennel, red wine vinegar, and basil, taken from my idol Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book Nigellissima. I made this amazing dish as part of a birthday meal for my dear friend Jade and her two sons, including a fantastic white cake with white vanilla buttercream frosting. It was only my third time ever making a white cake from scratch, and I was quite pleased with how everything turned out.

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INGREDIENTS
4 medium red onions
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh cracked pepper
4 cups of fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Sea salt to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 425F. Slice the onions lengthwise, keeping the stems. Like this.

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Arrange on a baking tray and pour over the olive oil.

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Sprinkle with the fennel seeds and black pepper.

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Bake for an hour, then remove and add sea salt. The onions will have darkened and crisped up outside, with the insides softened. Let cool, then sprinkle over the red wine vinegar.

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Add the basil leaves like you would a salad, and add more vinegar and salt if it needs it.

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It’s delicious, light and a perfect side accompaniment to a heavier meat or pasta dish. The fennel seed echoes the slight licorice flavor of the basil, and the red wine vinegar offsets it beautifully. So good and easy!

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I remember discovering Angela Carter in my mid-20s and falling instantly in love with her lush, prosaic, luxuriant and very bawdy language. Her writing can instantly evoke palaces filled with plush draperies, languid golden bathrooms, fairylike woods filled with magical creatures…….and also be as basic and raunchy as humorously describing a cat licking his bottom, the stench of rotting food, or the very earthy pleasures of lovemaking.

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Her masterwork, in my opinion, is her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Tales, from which the short story I am blogging today got its title. The book itself is a collection of eight novellas based on traditional fairy tales. You’ll read fantastical revised versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, two very different and equally gorgeous versions of Beauty and the Beast, and my own personal favorite story, The Bloody Chamber, which takes the tale of Bluebeard and twists it completely onto its head.

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I was always madly fascinated by the horrific tale of Bluebeard and the wives he’d murdered and then whose heads he kept hanging in his secret chamber, gruesome trophies of his own hunt. It’s no wonder that this particular story has never been turned into a bowdlerized Disney version – there is no way in hell you can make this story nice. You could throw in dancing candlesticks, talking animals, and singing snowmen all you want, and it remains a horrific tale of murder and ultimate redemption, when the fourth young wife takes the key – that infamous key that her husband has specifically told her NOT to use – opens the door to the bloody chamber, and discovers what happened to her predecessors.

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In Carter’s version, the young wife is ultimately rescued by her mother, so you can read it as a highly feminist archetypal tale. I think why this particular tale of Carter’s has always beguiled me so much is because the young wife is as fascinated by her older, murderous husband as she is repelled by him, which demonstrates the multifaceted nature of women. She is as happy with her husband’s wealth as she is miserable in her solitude. She orders a fabulous feast for herself when her husband leaves her to go on a business trip, and before her fateful exploration of his castle and ultimate discovery of the bodies of his three previous wives – all killed by him and preserved in a locked room.

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Then I found I had to tell her what I would like to have prepared for me; my imagination, still that of a schoolgirl, ran riot. A fowl in cream – or should I anticipate Christmas with a varnished turkey? No; I have decided. Avocado and shrimp, lots of it, followed by no entree at all. But surprise me for dessert with every ice-cream in the ice box.

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Shrimp and avocado are, in my humble opinion, a marriage made in heaven. There are so many wonderful ways to combine them, but I decided to make some appetizer bites combining shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and some homemade Creole seasoning. As I had invited friends over for Game Night, these made the perfect starter.

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INGREDIENTS
30 raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon chipotle sea salt
1 tablespoon butter
2 ripe avocadoes
1 tablespoon lime juice
Sea salt
2 large cucumbers, peeled and cut into round slices

METHOD
Mix the olive oil, lemon juice, and spices together in a bowl, and add the shrimp. Stir around to ensure they are completely covered, then refrigerate for an hour.

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Arrange the cucumber rounds on a platter.

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Mash the two avocadoes together, and season with salt and lime juice to taste.

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Spread the avocado mix onto each cucumber round.

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Heat the butter in a cast-iron skillet on medium-high, and gently cook the shrimp for 2-3 minutes per side, until they are opaque and have some nice blackened marks on them.

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This is what you want.

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Let the shrimp cool for a few minutes, then place one shrimp on each avocado-covered cucumber round.

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That’s it! Simple, elegant, and quite beautiful, with the contrast of the blackened shrimp floating on the cool green bed of avocado. And the spiciness of the shrimp is nicely offset both by the smooth avocado and crisp cucumber. So good that surely you can keep Bluebeard from killing you next.