A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I realize I am late to the party with this book, but seriously, I only “discovered” A Discovery of Witches, and forgive my cheesy-ass pun, when the Sundance Channel started airing the previews for the TV series based on the book trilogy. The series looked so well-made that I had to read the book and find out what all the hype was about.

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I’ll be honest and say off the top that no one does witches and vampires better than Anne Rice. They simply don’t. The woman has taken lush, lyrical, sometimes purple prose to new heights of sensuality when describing the taste of blood, the sensation of magic affecting the world around us, the scent of skin and flesh, the feeling of luxury in the smallest of details. So I went in fully not expecting anything similar to hers, but still hoping for a good read. And I wasn’t disappointed, though it was a different experience than what I’d expected.

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Matthew Clairmont is a vampire and Diana Bishop is a witch, in this fascinating universe of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They are both scholars in Oxford, Matthew a geneticist and medical doctor, and Diana a PhD-carrying professor of ancient alchemical texts. They meet in a library when Diana, whose witch talents have been “bound” since childhood, inadvertently unearths the magical tome Ashmole 782, an ancient book of magic that purportedly gives the secrets of how vampires, witches and daemons came into being and how any of these magical races might destroy the other and rule the world.

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Slightly melodramatic, yes. Of course, they have an instant attraction to one another, and of course they end up falling in love. The trajectory of their romance isn’t what you’d expect, though, since vampires, witches and daemons are forbidden from “fraternizing,” and they don’t consummate their love, at least not in this book. There are two more after this book, so hopefully they get some action in one of those. 😉

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Harkness writes with an unusual mix of historical reverence and modern sensibility, having her characters be these magical creatures with godlike powers, eternal life, and incredible talents…….and they do yoga. No, seriously. I about died laughing in the beginning of the book when Matthew courts Diana by taking her to a yoga class. Nothing against yoga here, but just the thought of a centuries-old blood drinker twisting himself into a downward-facing dog position gave me the giggles. Anyway, I digress.

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I do have to say that I didn’t much like the character of Matthew, quite honestly. I get that vampires, in this literary universe, are protective of those they love, and at heart, are predators so they consider the chase and the hunt an elemental part of any interaction and relationship. That, combined with being centuries old and being essentially a bossy, old-fashioned man who thinks he knows everything, make him a jerk. Pardon my crudeness, but yes, Matthew Clairmont is sort of a dick. He grew on me eventually, but I still think he’s an arrogant ass at times.

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There are some superb food references in this book, for being in the culinary repertoire of an ancient vampire who doesn’t even ingest food, at least, not much food. Matthew invites Diana to dinner at his elegant home when they are starting to fall in love, though ostensibly he is only inviting her to protect her from the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also sensed that the magical Ashmole has been unearthed and want to get their claws on it. But we all know Matthew has more on his mind than a book.

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The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat……..”it’s an old recipe from Normandy,” he said. “Do you like it?” “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Did you make it?”

I know the book specifies that Matthew makes Diana an old French-style veal stew with apples, but I can’t really stomach veal these days, so in honor of the fact of Matthew’s essential Frenchness, I opted instead for a beef stew with Dijon mustard and brandy. Can you get more Gallic than Dijon and brandy? 🙂

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup brandy
4 cups beef stock, preferably unsalted as the Dijon has quite a lot of salt
1/2 cup stoneground mustard
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots, with a sprinkle of sea salt over them. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Add the butter to the oil in the pan.

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Add the flour, salt and pepper to a large plastic bag, then put in the beef cubes to coat. Shake off excess flour with tongs, and place half the cubes in the pan.

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Cook over medium-high heat until well browned and crusty on all sides, then put into the bowl with the shallots. Repeat with the remaining beef cubes.

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Add the brandy to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose.

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Pour in the beef stock, the Dijon mustard and the stoneground mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender.

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The last 15 minutes of cook time, add the mushrooms and the red wine to the bubbling, fragrant stew. Simmer another 5 minutes, taste for seasoning, and serve with butter noodles and red wine to drink.

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So good and richly flavored! The mustard and brandy really complement one another, and perfectly tenderize the beef. No doubt a vampire would approve. I know we loved it so much we ate it all up before I could take the requisite “food and book” photo, so yet another shot of the luscious stew will have to suffice.

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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita is a heavy and weirdly surreal read, but it’s far more lighthearted and satiristic than many other Russian novels of the similar period. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote this book as a sharp commentary and satire on the communistic and atheistic government of time, top-heavy with government bureaucrats and processes. This book was actually banned in the Soviet Union for many years, and with Bulgakov’s sharp eye for calling bullshit in his country and his scathing tongue when satirizing the government and religion, it’s no wonder the bureaucrats couldn’t handle it. Most people who abuse their power in government can’t handle being satirized and criticized. Sound familiar? 🙂

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Anyway, the story is told in three parts. The first section is where Professor Woland (the Devil in disguise, with apologies to Elvis Presley) appears in 1930s Moscow with his minions, including Behemoth the black cat who is my favorite animal character in any book. He’s a real smart-ass, wears a bow tie, totes a Kalashnikov and dude! Get this! The cat DRINKS VODKA! Professor Woland proceeds to turn the Russian government and wealthy society upon its head as he asks aggravating questions, pisses off the Establishment and makes a nuisance of himself pointing out the obvious nonsense going on in society and government.

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The second part of the book takes place in ancient Jerusalem and tells Pontius Pilate’s version of the story of Jesus Christ prior to the Crucifixion, which is not at all what one would expect, and although this was interesting, to me it was the weakest part of the book. I guess it’s because I know that story so well, but it’s interesting to see how tormented Pilate is over his part in Jesus’s crucifixion.

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The eponymous Master and his mistress Margarita appear about halfway into the book, and are the third part of the story. The Master, a tormented and failed writer during the 1930s, has written a book about Jesus and Pontius Pilate that has not sold. Margarita, madly in love with the Master, makes an odd agreement with Woland in which she acts as hostess for Satan’s midnight ball and and flies over Moscow naked on a broom. Yes, you read that correctly. She is able to torment the horrible publisher who rejected The Master’s book and made him so miserable. This is a woman unlike any other – she is brave, loyal, adoring, smart and unafraid to use the powers of Darkness to help the man she loves.

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I personally liked the irony of reading this book – which you could also call “Sympathy for the Devil” on Easter, but since it’s also April Fool’s Day, it seems rather appropriate. Woland is a rather sympathetic Devil, and actually quite a just one, as he rewards Margarita’s love and loyalty to her Master and punishes wrongdoings and injustices, particularly those perpetrated by the corrupt and evil Russian bureaucrats whose greed and selfishness condemn them. One such bureaucrat, Nikanor Ivanovich, who has a rare and expensive apartment in the heart of Moscow gained by greed and illicit actions, serves his Chairman a rather delicious sounding meal before he is later arrested and punished for his horrible deeds.

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“His wife brought pickled herring from the kitchen, neatly sliced and thickly sprinkled with green onion. Nikanor Ivanovich poured himself a dram of vodka, drank it, poured another, drank it, picked up three pieces of herring on his fork….and at that moment the doorbell rang. Pelageya Antonovna was just bringing in a steaming pot which, one could tell at once from a single glance, contained amidst a fiery borscht……..”

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A spicy, fiery borscht! Oh yeah! But I held off on the pickled herring. One has to have standards, you know.  🙂 My borscht was a take on Elise Bauer’s recipe at Simply Recipes, which is my go-to website for many dishes, with my own tweaks, as usual.

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INGREDIENTS
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb. cubed boneless beef chunks
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
3 cups organic beef stock
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup red wine
3 large red beets
2 large potatoes
12-15 baby carrots
1 small head of red cabbage
5-6 bay leaves
2 tablespoons fresh dill
Sour cream for garnish

METHOD
Heat the olive oil a large cast-iron pot, and brown the beef chunks for about 5 minutes, turn them to brown on the other side, then add the onion and garlic, and cook those down for another 5 minutes.

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Pour in the beef stock, cover and cook for 45 minutes, until the meat is tender.

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While the meat is cooking, heat the oven to 375F. Slice the potatoes and beets into roughly similar slices, lay on a baking tray with the carrots, and pour over the olive oil. Roast them for about 30 minutes, then add to the beef and stock.

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Slice the red cabbage and add it to the pot, along with the fresh dill, the red wine vinegar, the red wine, and some salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or pepper as needed.

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Add the bay leaves, cover and simmer for another 30 minutes, until the cabbage is cooked through. The color of the beets will deepen with cooking and you’ll have this beautiful ruby-red potful of stew that begs to be eaten.

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Serve in bowls with a tablespoon of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill, and optionally, an ice-cold sipping shot of Russian vodka, and pretend you’re soaring naked on a broomstick over Moscow………or not. Maybe just eat your borscht instead.

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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

In terms of medieval books, The Canterbury Tales is right up there with Dante’s Inferno as my top favorites. Unless you’re a trained medieval scholar, however, I would strongly recommend reading a more modern English translation of the book, since the medieval English of Chaucer is quite difficult to read.

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The entire book essentially revolves around food, in particular because the overall framework of the book is a storytelling competition, the reward for which is a magnificent feast. Several disparate individuals stop to stay the night at the Tabard Inn in London on their way to the cathedral at Canterbury, on a religious pilgrimage. Harry Bailly is the innkeeper and suggests that the pilgrims all tell a story to pass the time on the journey – the best one wins.

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The pilgrims, among them The Prioress, The Summoner, The Knight, The Miller, The Wife of Bath, The Reeve, The Man of Law, and The Friar, are introduced in a long prologue that describes their various attributes. Then the book is broken into sections consisting of each pilgrim’s tale, as varied as the pilgrims themselves, and are by turns, funny, romantic, adventuresome, bawdy, and at times very sexually explicit.

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Any Chaucer scholar or reader of this book understands the role that food played in this historical context. Food was a clear marker of wealth and social rank. Bread was a customary food across all economic groups, but the wealthy ate finely milled white bread (which was also very unhealthy, not having any nutrients in it.)  Those of the peasant rank ate the brown wheat bread that was healthier but also still with grit and small rocks in it. Wine was to be had by most people, but again, the quality depended on your ability to pay.

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I always liked the description of the Franklin, being referred to as “Epicurus’ own son,” meaning that he greatly enjoyed his food. Part of the lengthy introduction of the book, which is a heavenly description of fish, meat pies, wine, chicken, fat partridges, dainties (candies or pastries), bread and ale. Then, The Summoner is described in foodie terms, as he likes garlic and onion and red wine, which were considered to be unhealthy, so as such, so he is considered in a negative light.

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So, a combination of chicken, wine, spices, and the previously mentioned garlic and onion, seemed in order, and for me, that means coq au vin. With so much leeway in this recipe, I used my own method that’s based on the great Jacques Pépin’s marvelous recipe, using a bit of spice that would have been used in medieval cooking, and served with a salad of arugula, roasted beets, blue cheese, pine nuts, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Enjoy.

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INGREDIENTS
12 chicken thighs, bone in and skin off
1 bottle fruity red wine, like Grenache or Beaujolais
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 strips pancetta, cut into pieces
1 large yellow onion
8 baby carrots, cut lengthwise
3 garlic cloves, slivered
15-20 bella mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
3 bay leaves
1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (substitute for mace, a well-known medieval spice)
Egg noodles (optional)

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METHOD
Marinate the chicken in the red wine, garlic and herbs for up to 6 hours. Reserve the marinade.

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Fry the pancetta in the olive oil, then add the chopped-up onion and cook it for 10 minutes.

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Toss in the carrots and the mushrooms here, stir again, and cook another 10 minutes.

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Add the chicken pieces, pour in the marinade, and add the bay leaves. Mix everything together, and add the nutmeg.

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Pour over the chicken stock, and simmer on low for 2 hours, stirring occasionally and tasting for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed.

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For the last 45 minutes of cooking, add some egg noodles, which will absorb some liquid and thicken it. Taste again and season as needed.

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A Scandal in Bohemia (Sherlock Holmes) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Thanks to JRB for the photography.

Who doesn’t love the adventures of the erstwhile Sherlock Holmes, and his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson? So ingrained in our culture are these two literary detectives that the image of a deerstalker cap and pipe, the phrase “elementary, my dear Watson,” and the address 221-B Baker Street in London, need no other explanation.

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I first read the stories of Sherlock Holmes when I was eight, finding a leatherbound collection of tales in my father’s library. As my readers probably know, I inherited his books when he died, and among his wonderful treasures was the collection of tales about Holmes and Watson.

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SPOILER AHEAD! My favorite Holmes tale is “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” just because it’s such a great story, and of course, I love dogs, so it was sad at the end when the poor “demonic” hound was killed. My second favorite Holmes tale is “A Scandal in Bohemia,” because this is where we meet Irene Adler, the only woman to gain a hold on Sherlock Holmes’ mind and heart. In fact, the opening line of this story says it all……..“To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” I think we all have that one person in our lives who is THE person for us. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, why certain people get such a hold in our hearts and minds, but hell, if a detective with a mind like a steel trap can have feelings like that, the rest of us mere mortals should be excused for having those emotions, too.

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Anyway, the storyline is pretty basic. The King of Hungary comes to Holmes’ house in disguise and hires him to get back a photo of he and the self-same Irene Adler, with whom the King had an affair a few years earlier. Now engaged to a young woman of a very prim and proper family, the scandal that would ensue should it be known the King had a liaison with such a woman as Irene Adler would be momentous. So Holmes and Watson proceed to find out where Irene Adler is, follow her through a few adventures, and in the process, Holmes falls in love with her, though it’s never explicitly stated. She is able to outwit him at the end, earning his respect and regard and of course, his eternal infatuation with her.

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I always like it when a woman outwits a man. It’s the feminist in me. Anyway, when Holmes recruits Watson to find Irene Adler with him, they first have a nice little repast, as Holmes has been so wrapped up solving mental puzzles and taking cocaine that he has forgotten to eat. Yes, our detective was a cocaine addict. You didn’t know that?

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“I heard no more. They drove away in different directions, and I went off to make my own arrangements.” “Which are?” “Some cold beef and a glass of beer,” he answered, ringing the bell. I have been too busy to think of food, and I am likely to be busier still this evening. By the way, Doctor, I shall want your co-operation.”

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I don’t like cold beef, and am not much of a beer drinker. But, beef cooked in beer? I could totally get behind that. Carbonnade is a very well-known method of cooking meat in beer, because it tenderizes the meat so beautifully, and if you use a Belgian ale, you have carbonnade a la Flamande. Yeah, whatever. It sounded good. This is the method that worked for me, based on Saveur.com’s delicious recipe, but with some flavoring tweaks of my own, and using Belgian “saison” ale recommended by my good friend Jake, who is a liquor guru and an overall pretty cool guy.

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INGREDIENTS
2 lb. beef chuck, cut into 2″ x 12″-thick slices
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper for seasoning
14 cup flour
4 tablespoons butter
4 slices bacon, finely chopped

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6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 yellow onion, sliced into thin half moons
1 shallot, cut similarly

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2 cups Belgian saison ale
1 cup beef stock
1 beef bouillon cube
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons yellow mustard
2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
4 sprigs fresh tarragon
Handful fresh parsley
3 bay leaves

METHOD
Season beef with salt and pepper in a bowl. Then, toss the meat in the flour so it’s lightly coated.

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Heat the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the meat and brown it. You will probably need to brown in 2-3 batches, for about 8-10 minutes per batch.

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Set meat aside on a plate, and add the bacon to the pan. Cook for the same amount of time, so that the bacon fat renders down. The smell is heavenly!

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Finely mince the garlic, and toss that into the pan, and fling in the onions and shallots. Again, a scent from heaven.

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Put in half the Belgian ale, stir a bit, and scrape any bits from the pan bottom, which will add to the flavor. Reduce the beer for about 5-6 minutes.

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Add the meat to the pot, and pour over the rest of the ale. It foams up so beautifully, and the hoppy smell just adds a perfect note to the meat.

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Put in the stock, the bouillon cube, the brown sugar, the apple cider vinegar, the herbs and more salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, give it a stir, then lower the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 1 and 1/2 hours. Add the mustard and Worchestershire sauce about 15 minutes before serving.

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Decant into bowls, and serve with some nice, crusty bread and lovely red wine. The vinegar and sugar really add a delicious and unique note that contrasts beautifully with the beer, which tenderizes the meat wonderfully well.

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As Holmes himself might say, it’s elementary, my dear readers!

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon (Outlander Series)

So I won’t bore you with my gushing adoration for the books of Diana Gabaldon. If you’re a book lover, a lover of history, a lover of epic love stories, a lover of time travel, or if you watch STARZ, you’ve probably heard of the Outlander series by this marvelous writer, and hopefully, you also think it’s the shizzle. I know I do.

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For those few people who might not have heard of either the books or the TV series, the premise is simple: a woman travels through time, meets the love of her life 200 years in the past, and forever alters her past, present, and future. It’s a much more detailed, ornate and intricate story, however, involving British, French and American history, the battle for Scottish independence and the devastation of the Battle of Culloden Moor, a whiff of the supernatural, a hint of sci-fi, and probably one of the most beautiful, complex and mature love stories ever written about in literature. Gabaldon clearly understands the convoluted pathways of the human heart, and expresses them in all their lovely, ugly glory in the 8-book series. The TV series, though great, falls short in details, and was extremely dark and at times, unbearable to watch. But I still watched the Season 2 premier!

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Mentions of food and drink are quite plentiful throughout the entire book series, with such wonders as a rabbit-and-pigeon pie, soused pig’s face, wild turkey with chestnuts and truffles, sangria drunk with a pot-smoking priest, a chocolate cake with walnuts (shell bits and all) for your biting pleasure, something dreadful-sounding called parritch, which is some sort of nasty porridge eaten in Scotland, and one of my favorite food scenes in any book, when Louis XV invites Jamie and Claire to an ornate luncheon at Versailles Palace and a baroque display of stuffed baby quails, roasted in their original shape, bones and all, are presented to the king, a sort of kingly four-and-twenty-blackbirds-baked-into-a-pie. Claire watches in bemused fascination as the king pops one of the little blackened birds into his mouth, chews, and swallows. She then excuses herself to vomit profusely in the gardens. Go, quail!

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I’ve started re-reading the whole series from the beginning, as much to prepare myself for the second season of TV series, as to lose myself again in this marvelous world. Reading this series is a sheer, sensual pleasure of the mind and the heart. I’m on the third book, Voyager, and in honor of the second series premier tonight, I decided to recreate the peppery, creamy oyster stew Jamie and Claire share after their first night together in a very long time, where we find Claire remembering some very seductive and erotic moments from the night before.

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My breath coming a little short, I bent my head to my oyster stew. Jamie appeared not to have noticed; he added a large pat of butter to his bowl, shaking his head as he did so. “Sawney’s what they say in the Highlands,” he informed me. ‘And in the Isles, too. Sandy’s more what ye’d hear in the Lowlands – or from an ignorant Sassenach.” He lifted one eyebrow at me, smiling, and raised a spoonful of the rich, fragrant stew to his mouth.

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This is the method that worked for me, tweaked from Buddy Sizemore’s 5-star recipe on Allrecipes.com, with of course, some added touches of my own.

INGREDIENTS

3 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of cayenne pepper
15-20 oysters, shucked, and the liquid they come in. You can also use canned if that’s all you can find, but save the oyster liquid either way.
2 ribs celery, finely diced

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2 shallots, finely diced or minced
4 bay leaves, fresh if possible but dried is also fine
1 cup half-and-half cream or whole milk
1/2 cup of Pernod liqueur (my touch as I had a bottle from a previous blog post)
2 little red potatoes, peeled and cubed into smallish pieces

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1 cup of chicken stock or fish stock if you have it
Chicken stock cube

METHOD

Melt the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and saute the celery, shallot and garlic along with the cayenne, salt and pepper. When they have softened and are somewhat translucent, add the Pernod, the chicken stock, the chicken stock cube, and the fresh bay leaves.

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Then add the diced potato and cook until the potato chunks are very soft and easy to mash with a wooden spoon. Between 20-30 minutes cooking time should do it. When the potatoes are soft, mash them against the side of the pot so that they thicken the broth. Add the oyster liquid and the half-and-half, and taste. I warn you, the scent of the broth is heady, with the oyster liquor mingling with the butter and the anise perfume of the Pernod. It’s amazing how good it smells. Even if you’re not a fan of licorice, please try adding the Pernod if you have it. It completely transforms the stew.

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Stir together again and allow to gently simmer for 10 minutes, so the flavors mingle and combine. Lower the heat and add the oysters.

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You’re looking for the edges of the oysters to curl up, which is when they’re cooked, so approximately 5 minutes. Keep an eye on it and continue stirring, so the cream doesn’t curdle and the oysters don’t overcook.

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I have to say that this is one of the best things I’ve made yet. It’s rich, unctuous, and tastes so fresh and luscious. You may want to taste for any last-minute seasoning, though I found it didn’t need anything. It was delish! Serve in bowls with oyster crackers or some good, crusty bread and a glass of wine, or if you’re truly into Scots mode, a large dram of whisky. Slainte!

“I want him.” I had not said that to Jamie at our marriage; I had not wanted him, then. But I had said it since, three times; in two moments of choice at Craigh na Dun, and once again at Lallybroch. “I want him.” I wanted him still, and nothing whatever could stand between us.