Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

I’ve felt a bit burnt out with my blog writing lately, though I can’t figure out if it’s because I’ve read through most of the books I really wanted to, or just haven’t felt the yen to cook. It’s a combination of both, but I think the New Year and wintertime is so gray and depressing that it saps the energy out of me. Also, sometimes the thought of making the same old dishes is boring.

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So when my friend Corey recommended Behind Closed Doors, my initial reaction was “meh.” It’s not that it didn’t sound good, it’s just that this genre of book is not usually my first choice. Along the same lines of The Girl on The Train (which is one my earliest blog posts), Gone Girl, and the ilk – you know, those psychological thrillers that follow a fairly familiar trajectory of a unreliable female narrator who finds herself in a very twisted peril – this book was actually very intense. Just goes to show, never judge a book by its genre.

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I actually read this book in three hours because it hooked me with the first paragraph and didn’t let me go. Starting with a dinner party given by Jack and Grace, the two main characters, it introduces what looks like the ideal, perfect marriage. Jack is wealthy, successful, handsome and charming. Grace is gorgeous, beautifully dressed, maintains a flawless home and figure, and can cook like a dream. So of course you know that there is some seriously fucked-up stuff going on under the surface.

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Anytime I look at a person, a couple, a family and they come across as ‘perfect,” I automatically go on red alert. There is no such thing as perfection, so when someone posits that their life, their home, their job, their marriage, their family dynamic has little or no flaws, floats on calm seas, and in particular, when their social media shows nothing but perfection, you can bet money that there is a lot of chaos, drama, trauma and negativity under the surface.

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You find out pretty quickly just how evil Jack is, and he is a truly nasty son of a bitch, though his character isn’t really well developed because you don’t get a huge amount of background about why he turned out to be such a bastard. I wish there had been more back story for him, because like all villains, he’s a lot more entertaining. Grace is more developed, and you definitely come to understand just how insinuating Jack’s manipulations are, when you realize exactly why he has targeted her and how he goes about breaking her psychologically. TRIGGER WARNING: there is a scene of animal death, where Jack kills Grace’s dog when they arrive home after their honeymoon. If you’re like me and cannot in any way read about animal violence, be warned. I had to skip over it. It doesn’t detract from the story, and in this case, it truly showcased what a horrendous prick Jack is, so it’s not gratuitous like some books can be when they unnecessarily have scenes of torture, gore, rape and horrendous death of characters, which I absolutely hate.

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She waits until Jack has carved the beef Wellington and served it with a gratin of potatoes, and carrots lightly glazed with honey. There are also tiny sugar peas, which I plunged into boiling water just before taking the beef from the oven. Diane marvels that I’ve managed to get everything ready at the same time, and admits that she always chooses a main course like curry, which can be prepared earlier and heated through at the last minute. I’d like to tell her that I’d much rather do as she does, that painstaking calculations and sleepless nights are the currency I pay to serve such a perfect dinner. But the alternative – serving anything that isn’t perfect – isn’t an option.

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One of the many ways that Jack has come to control Grace – and by which she has subtly gained back some small control herself – is in his exactitude and precision for all things, particularly cooking.  Beef Wellington with duxelles. I’d never made Beef Wellington before and thought it sounded like an exciting challenge, so here we go! Note: I used a center cut of beef tenderloin, which is quite pricey, though I think it’s worth it to splurge once in awhile.

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INGREDIENTS
2 pints white button mushrooms
1 large shallot
7 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 two-pound center cut beef tenderloin
Olive oil, sea salt, and pepper
8-10 slices prosciutto
2-3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 pound puff pastry
Flour for rolling out the pastry
1 egg, beaten with a bit of water and sea salt

METHOD
In a food chopper or processor, pulse together the mushrooms, shallot, garlic, thyme, and tarragon, until finely minced.

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Melt the butter and olive oil in a pan, add the chopped mushroom mixture, and saute with a sprinkle of sea salt for 10-12 minutes, until most of the moisture has evaporated. Set aside to cool.

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On some plastic wrap, lay out the prosciutto, overlapping so you have a large sheet, then spread a thin layer of the cooled mushroom mixture onto the prosciutto.

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Drizzle the meat with olive oil, sea salt and pepper, and sear it in a cast-iron pan on high for about 2 minutes per side, on all four sides.

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Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes. then smear the Dijon mustard on all sides of the meat.

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Place the meat on top of the mushrooms, cover tightly with the prosciutto strips, seal over the plastic, and refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours.

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Pre-heat the oven to 425F and sprinkle flour on a flat surface. Roll out the puff pastry long enough so that it will completely cover the meat.

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Remove the meat from the refrigerator, cut off the plastic, and lay it in the center of the pastry. Fold over the pastry tightly until the meat is completely covered.

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Brush the pastry with the beaten egg and sprinkle over a bit more salt. Place seam-side down on a flat baking tray, cut some slits in the pastry, and bake 45 minutes, or until the internal meat temperature is 120F.

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Remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes before slicing with a serrated-edge knife and serving.

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I served mine with roasted red creamer potatoes and roasted radishes in a garlic-herb coating.

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The cut of meat is incredibly tender, so tender in fact, that we were able to cut it with a fork.  Sooooooooo delicious and decadent, a real treat for the tastebuds.

 

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The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the method that worked for me.

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

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

METHOD

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

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

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

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

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The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe was always my literary boyfriend, even from a young age. I remember reading Edgar Allan Poe’s Complete Tales and Poems as a little girl and being simultaneously freaked out and enchanted. He scared the living daylights out of me, but I still read his stories.

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I remember being terrified of black cats after coming to the end of that particular short story. His writings have always fascinated me, and in fact, I wrote one of my best undergrad essays on the architecture in his stories and how they reflected the inner chaos and turmoil of his twisted protagonists.

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My father, about whom I’ve written previously, and who would celebrate his 69th birthday today, loved to read also and had a collection of leather-bound classic books, in one of which the short stories of Poe were collected. I inherited these when he died, and started re-reading them earlier this month, in conjunction with finding Lore Podcast, a web-based podcast about dark, creepy history. It was the combination of rereading Poe and listening to this genuinely eerie podcast, that inspired me to create a dish for the blog. But, if you’re into scary stories, or simply enjoy the darker side of history, check out Lore.

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Back to Edgar’s tales. Poe has always had a special place in my heart. His dark, dramatic, romantic, Gothic style always spoke to my dark side. His over-the-top declamatory way of writing, particularly in poems such as “Annabel Lee” or, of course “The Raven,” and in two of my absolute favorite stories in the world, “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” seemed to always be pointing to that shadow world beyond the veil separating us in this one. And then of course, how could anyone forget those classic Vincent Price movie versions of Poe’s works?

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“The Pit and the Pendulum” was always the most horrifying to me, in the sense of actually seeing what the dreadful fate of the story narrator is. I mean, can it get any worse than to be trapped by the Inquisition in a pit, in near darkness, to be tortured with no food and then teased with meat and drink before coming across this instrument of torture designed not only to slice you in half but to also make sure you can watch it descending upon you, inch by terrifying inch? It’s this ability to make you squirm with unease and fright, such as in my other favorite tale, “The Cask of Amontillado” that makes him a genius of the dark side.

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With the Spanish references in both “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” I decided to recreate the passage in the first tale, in which the narrator finds a table of meat, and leads him to a more terrifying discovery, and led me to deciding to make Spanish-spiced pork tenderloin medallions in a mushroom-cream and – you guessed it – Amontillado sherry sauce!

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“I saw, to my horror, that the pitcher had been removed. I say to my horror, for I was consumed with intolerable thirst. This thirst it appeared to be the design of my persecutors to stimulate; for the food in the dish was meat pungently seasoned.”

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe from finecooking.com, but as usual, with a few of my own tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
1 1-lb pork tenderloin, cut into 1-inch thick medallions
2 tablespoons of cornstarch, divided
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of butter
2 cups sliced mushrooms, any variety
1 shallot, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced with a Microplane grater
1 teaspoon each of dried sage, dried parsley and dried thyme
Tablespoon of Spanish smoked paprika, or pimenton
1/2 cup Amontillado sherry
1/2 cup of chicken or beef stock
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 cup heavy cream

METHOD
Flatten your medallions a little bit with the flat side of the knife. Lightly dredge each medallion in 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, on either side, and shake off any excess.

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Heat the olive oil and butter together slowly in a large pan. Gently fry 4-5 medallions at a time, about 3 minutes a side. Being somewhat thin, they will cook quickly so watch them and turn when looking brown. Set aside on a platter.

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In the pan juices, cook the shallot and garlic. Honestly, what would we do without these kitchen staples, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a savory dish I’ve ever cooked that didn’t have one or both of these flavorsome ingredients. Truly gifts from God,they are.

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Add the sliced mushrooms, your three dried herbs, the smoked paprika/pimenton and a splosh of the amontillado, just a splosh to keep it moist. Stir together and cook another 5 minutes.

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In a mixing cup, whisk together the other tablespoon of cornstarch, the remainder of the sherry, the chicken stock, and the Dijon mustard. Add to the veg in the pan, and simmer for about 5 minutes more.

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Add the pork medallions, then slowly pour in the heavy cream, stir to combine, cover and simmer gently for 20-25 minutes. Check a few times to make sure the cream doesn’t curdle or burn. Oh that heavenly scent!

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While that’s cooking, you can prepare any side dish you want. I love green beans, and I remember the “habichuelas” that my Nana Jean used to cook, with bacon and onion and, oh they were so good! When I lived in Spain for that marvelous semester, I housed with a wonderful woman named Maria Carmen who was a professional cook at a private girl’s school in Pamplona, and one of her specialities was “judias con tomates.” In both their honors, I combined their methods and made a Spanish-style dish of green beans, slowly cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes, salt, Spanish olive oil, a squeeze of anchovy paste, and flaked almonds, to go with the Spanish-spiced pork medallions. Delicious and, to me anyway, redolent of Spain.

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But of course, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel García Márquez

5152QdYs-aLI’ve had a long-time passionate love for Gabriel García Márquez for years now, originally fueled by Love in the Time of Cholera and Of Love and Other Demons, and most especially, Strange Pilgrims. This book, a compilation of twelve surreal and dreamlike tales, tells of a woman who sells her dreams – speaking of which – to the wealthy citizens of Vienna, two young brothers who endure the torture of an English governess one Greek summer, a family vacationing overnight in a haunted castle in Italy who wake to find themselves covered in blood, and a saintly man who carries the uncorrupted body of his dead daughter to and from the Vatican each day hoping to have her canonized, among others. Chief among my favorite of these stories, is Maria Dos Prazeres. Perhaps because I fear dying old and alone, perhaps because I, too, spent many years in the thrall of loving someone terrible for me, and perhaps because I also have a little dog that I cherish, could I relate so strongly to this story of an aging prostitute who fears no one will weep at her funeral and so trains her little dog, Noi, to weep over her grave.

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Maria Dos Prazeres has a long-time client, an elderly count who comes to her house once a fortnight with a bottle of champagne and the paper, and sits to read while she prepares them both a meal, in a very odd parody of a marriage. They then retire to the bedroom. But the meal she cooks him sounded unusual and quite delicious.

“The visit had turned into a ritual. The punctual Count would arrive between seven and nine at night with a bottle of local champagne, wrapped in the afternoon paper to make it less noticeable, and a box of filled truffles. Maria dos Prazeres prepared cannelloni au gratin and a young chicken au jus – the favorite dishes from the halcyon days of fine old Catalonian families – and a bowl filled with fruits of the season.”

This recipe works on the premise that you already have some tomato sauce already made, and which I tend to always have on hand because it’s so calming to make. Anyway, if you don’t have some made, you can use a can of Italian-style diced tomatoes but I can’t promise they will taste as good. Anyway, onward!

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

8-10 cannelloni or manicotti pasta shells
6 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless, and poached and shredded. (I usually do this day before.)

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1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 shallots, finely diced
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 bag of spinach
1 carton of raw mushrooms, sliced
2 cups of fontina cheese
3 tablespoons of flour
3 tablespoons of butter
1 1/2 cup of hot milk
Bunch of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 cup of Italian-style breadcrumbs
2 cups of already-made tomato ragú sauce

METHOD

In a large pot, bring about 8-10 cups of salted water to a boil. When boiling, cook the cannelloni shells for 10 minutes, checking for doneness. They should be al dente, chewy but with a hint of firmness. Drain the noodles, but don’t rinse, and leave to cool while you make your cannelloni filling. Save about a cup of the starchy pasta cooking water and set aside.

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In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and add the diced shallots and garlic. Slice about half the mushrooms and add them in, so they saute as well. Cook for about 10-12 minutes, then add the spinach and wilt it down in the onion, garlic and mushrooms, so that all the flavors mingle. Remove from heat, add the cooked chicken and some of the saved pasta cooking water, stir together to mix well, and set aside to cool while you make the bechamel sauce.

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In yet another pot (did I mention you’ll have a hella big amount of dishes to wash after this?), melt the butter over medium heat and when melted, slowly add in the flour. Stir vigorously with a whisk, so that the flour incorporates. Gradually pour in the hot milk, continuing and whisk until everything is amalgamated. Lower the heat to medium low, and stir stir stir, until the sauce thickens. This will take about 10 minutes, and don’t leave it because the milk could curdle or burn and that would just totally suck, wouldn’t it?

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When nice and hot and thick, add in the chopped parsley and some salt, lower the heat again, and stir some more so the parsley flavor infuses everything. This is the point where you want to add in a good cupful of your tomato ragú sauce, which will make the bechamel a gorgeous, deep pinky-red color. Remove from the heat and allow to cool while you assemble the cannelloni shells.

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In a buttered glass or metal pan, add a good spoonful or two of your premade tomato ragú sauce to the bottom. Grate the Havarti cheese into the chicken-spinach-mushroom mixture and mix together well, preferably with your very clean hands.

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Stuff each cannelloni shell with some of the divine-smelling mixture. Once all the shells are filled, lay them in a row in the glass pan, add some chopped raw mushrooms, pour over the reddish-hued, luscious cream sauce, top with the Italian breadcrumbs, and bake for 35 minutes, or until the top is golden. The smell from the oven – what divine and sweet torture it is!

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Remove from the oven and admire the golden, gooey beauty that this dish is. Then, of course, apply it to your face. Yum!