Alburquerque by Rudolfo Anaya

Those of you who know me know of my deep and abiding love for the books of Rudolfo Anaya. For those of you who may not have heard of him, he is a well-known New Mexico writer who wrote what many consider the seminal work of Chicano literature – Bless Me, Ultima. His work tends to focus on the lives of his fellow New Mexicans, and he has made forays into children’s literature as well. He’s written poems, essays, short stories, and plays, but it is his fictional novels that reveal his heart and soul, as well as the intense love he has for his home state and in particular, for the city where we both reside, Albuquerque.

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His novel Alburquerque – yes, you read that correctly with the extra “R” – is a love story and homage to this unique character of a city. It tells the story of Ben Chavez, a writer and professor and his connection with a young boxer named Abrán Gonzalez, but that is only part of the tale. The story takes place against the backdrop of a nasty mayoral race, and incorporates a beautiful love story between Abrán and Lucinda, an adopted boy’s search for his birth father, the spiritual beliefs and mingled faith of the Catholics of Northern New Mexico, and the unique politics of Albuquerque.

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I love this book so very much, not just because I love Rudolfo Anaya, but because it so perfectly describes my city. From the stunningly blue springtime skies to the cottonwood trees along the bosque trails that frame the Rio Grande River, from the tall buildings of Downtown to the seasonal matanzas, from the mountains of the many small towns of Northern New Mexico to the gorgeous homes of Albuquerque’s North Valley, Anaya not only knows Albuquerque inside and out, he clearly adores this city.

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The story takes place right around Easter, and rereading it, I was struck by the beautiful description of the traditional Good Friday trek to El Santuario de Chimayó. Chimayó is a tiny town about an hour and a half north of Albuquerque, and is world-famous for its church and for its holy dirt, which pilgrims take with them as a blessing. The dirt is believed to have healing powers and people come from around the world to see it. On Good Friday, devout Catholics trek on foot from surrounding towns, sometimes walking over 100 miles to show their faith and devotion. This year, due to the ongoing coronavirus emergency, the trek was cancelled. Though I am not a practicing Catholic, I understand the importance of this annual pilgrimage to the faithful, as well as the cultural identity we New Mexicans have with Chimayó. I pray that next year we can renew this wonderful tradition.

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Then, of course, there is the New Mexican food that is described in luscious detail by Anaya. Red chile enchiladas, tortillas, the scent of fresh green chile roasting, the tart zing of a margarita, and then there is this passage, describing the smells of food cooking as Abrán walks into the house where his mother Sara is cooking.

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Sara was up when he got home. The house was warm and welcomed him with the smell of tortillas on the comal and fresh coffee brewing. She called from the kitchen, where she was making Lenten food for Good Friday: tortillas, tortas de huevo, spinach mixed with beans and a pod of red chile, and natillas for dessert.

New Mexican Catholics have a traditional Lenten meal that we eat on Good Friday. It’s meatless, and almost always comprises salmon patties, torta de huevo with red chile,  (tortas de huevo are savory little egg cakes),  quelites (wilted spinach greens) mixed with cooked pinto beans, tortillas, and for dessert, natillas. Natillas is a delicious vanilla custard dusted with cinnamon and is very central to any New Mexican’s Lenten meal. So that’s what I made, using my own Nana Jean’s tried-and-true method. She used to make the Good Friday dinner every year, and my sister and I took up the tradition after she died. This year, sadly, we are all social distancing so no point in making all that food when we can’t be together to share it. But natillas are so delicious that I decided a bowl of them would be a good distraction from everything going on right now.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sweetened condensed milk
3 heaping tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
3 tablespoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon

METHOD
Mix together the whole milk, condensed milk, cornstarch and sugar over medium heat, stirring very frequently. The sugar burns easily so don’t leave it.

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Separate the egg yolks from the whites and add the yolks to the milk mixture. Set aside the egg whites.

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Whisk the mixture for the first couple of minutes, so the cornstarch is better incorporated, then stir with a wooden spoon.

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Add the vanilla and cook, stirring often, until the mixture thickens into a custard. Remove from the heat.

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Whisk the egg whites on high until they form stiff peaks.

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Fold the whipped egg whites into the custard mixture in a large bowl.

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Sprinkle with cinnamon and chill overnight.

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Heavenly to taste, light and sweet but not overly so, and just completely the taste of New Mexico Eastertime!

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

I ran across this weird and engaging book of short stories at a yard sale a few weekends back, and of course, the unusual title Vampires in the Lemon Grove caught my eye. Well, as a former Goth chick who loves all things dark, supernatural, creepy and eerie, anything with “vampire” in the title is likely going to be something I immediately want to investigate.

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A book of eight short stories featuring elements of the bizarre, weird and supernatural, but in very unexpected way, the title tale features a very unusual and supernatural (though not frighteningly so) story of a marriage between two ancient vampires, Clyde and Magreb, who have found themselves living their rather mundane marital life in a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, where Clyde sits on a bench, watches the tourists go by and ogles the Bay of Naples, befriends a strange Goth chick and ponders the life he and Magreb have led to this point.

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In many ways, the supernatural element of their being vampires is secondary, as their marriage mirrors any in modern times, questioning if that person still loves you after so many years together, the nature of love vs. companionship, and finding new and unique things – in this case, different drinks to slake their thirst – as a sort of parallel to their marriage in which they seek the new and the unusual to keep them engaged and entertained even as they alternately turn away from, and back towards, each other.

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You see, these two blood-drinking vampires have globe-trotted and traversed the continent, sucking the juice straight from the apple, sipping mint tea, cherry Coke floats, jacka’s milk, and in Clyde’s words, a thousand beverages that claim to have magical, thirst-quenching properties, in an effort to sate their never-ending lust for drinking blood. Oddly enough, when they find themselves drinking a pitcher of tart lemonade in the grove of Santa Francesca in Sorrento, once a Jesuit stronghold and now a touristy, overpriced lemon grove, they decide that lemons will be their tipple of choice going forward. So they proceed to settle in Sorrento and suck dry a good half-dozen lemons each per day.

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Honestly though, I only read the eponymous first story and the meandering prose lost me after awhile. I enjoyed reading about the vampiric evolution of a marriage and the luscious lemon groves of Amalfi but Russell, though a beautiful handler of the English language, really doesn’t know how to end a story and Vampires in the Lemon Grove ended on a very annoying and vague note of……what? Are they now bats? Will they fly away? Will Clyde now become the spirit of the young Goth girl? WTH, I asked myself?

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The saving grace is Russell’s ability to bring the description of those magical lemon groves along the Amalfi Coast vividly to life. It’s nearly enough to make you wish you were there, lying in that blazing coastal heat, watching the impossible blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Gulf of Naples, a glass of wine in one hand and the other hand trailing in the salty water and the heady scent of those uniquely tart-sweet lemons. I considered making some type of lemon cocktail designed to be gently sucked from a straw in homage of these two odd vampires, but instead decided on a dessert, and gave Meyer lemon pie a whirl. Meyer lemons are as close to a true Amalfi lemon as you can get without actually hopping flight to Sorrento, and since this is the season for Meyer lemons, it seemed like the perfect marriage……..and no vampires to be found.

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INGREDIENTS
1 all-butter pre-made frozen pie crust
4 Meyer lemons and 1 regular lemon
2 14-ounce cans sweetened condensed milk
3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon orange extract
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 sugar
1/2 cup lemon juice
Zest of 1 Meyer lemon
3 tablespoons fresh mint

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F and blind-bake the frozen pie crust for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool, and using a reamer or juicer, begin to juice the lemons into a bowl. They are very seedy so try to extract the seeds first if possible.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, add the three egg yolks and the vanilla.

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Add the lemon juice, the condensed milk and the salt, and mix well on medium for up to five minutes, until a you get a thickened, slightly golden, creamy texture.

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Pour the lemony mixture into the cooled pie crust and bake for 15 minutes. Allow to cool for another 15 minutes, then refrigerate overnight.

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Pour the heavy cream into the now-clean mixing bowl of your red Kitchen Aid using the whisk attachment, and mix for 7-8 minutes, until the cream forms thick peaks. Add the sugar,the lemon juice and the lemon zest and whip again.

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Spread the lemony cream over the top of the chilled pie.

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Garnish with freshly chopped mint, and dive right in. Don’t save any for those pesky, lemon-sucking vampires!

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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Dedicated to my dear friend Kate Parker. “Well, this is Italian rain!”

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I came across the book The Enchanted April while browsing on Amazon.com one afternoon when I should have been working. Having loved the film so much, I decided the time had come to see how faithful to the book it had been. The book cover was also dreamily beautiful, showing the cypress trees which Tuscany is so famous for, that I had to have it. Yes, I judge books by their covers. Sue me.

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The book is somewhat dated in its language and structure, and I actually found that I preferred the film version. Surprising, because I usually find film adaptations subpar compared to the book original (The Lord of the Rings trilogy being a notable exception.) The premise, four dissatisfied London women, in the depressing time after WWI, decide to share the expense of renting a castle in Italy for the month of April. Their home lives, for various reasons, are somewhat unhappy and this is their escape to try and find peace and happiness. Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot make the initial move to rent the castle, and invite Lady Caroline Dester (nicknamed Scrap) and Mrs. Fisher, two upper-class ladies to join them, without realizing their higher-echelon-of-society place assures Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline that they can take over the castle. So they do, leading to some very funny misunderstandings.

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I did enjoy the book, though. It’s a wonderful escape, with the lush descriptions of flowers and the sea, and the interactions between the four women make for some genuinely amusing reading. I think why I liked this book so much (and obviously why I love the film so much) is because it reminded me of my trip to Italy with my wonderful friend Kate, a few years ago. We were both desperate to escape the chill and the rain of England, where I landed and where she lived at the time, but when we got to Italy, all we found was……yes, you guessed it. Rain! It’s so funny now, but at the time we were both quite peeved that the rain would destroy our holiday! So I kept reminding Kate, just as Lottie tells Rose when they arrive in a downpour, “well, this is Italian rain!” Because, of course, Italian rain is so much more picturesque! It still makes me laugh to remember.

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Lady Caroline – Scrap – just wants to be left in peace. A society beauty, she is used to being gawked at and constantly surrounded by admirers, and simply wants to be somewhere where she isn’t always grabbed at, because, as she puts it “I don’t want to talk or think or constantly be the center of attention. You know how that is, right?”  Not really, Lady C., but I’m sure it’s rough. One afternoon, the four ladies sit down to a beautiful al fresco tea with macaroons, which are much loved by Lady Caroline, and the scene was described so beautifully that I was inspired to give them a whirl. Not being the world’s greatest baker, I decided against the fancy French macarons with their beautiful array of colors, and instead opted for chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons. No one here complained, though.

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“It appeared that Mrs. Wilkins had not been seen since breakfast. Mrs. Arbuthnot thought she had probably gone for a picnic. Scrap missed her. She ate the enormous macaroons, the best and biggest she had ever come across, in silence. Tea without Mrs. Wilkins was dull; and Mrs. Arbuthnot had that fatal flavour of motherliness about her……of coaxing one to eat.”

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This is the super easy method that worked for me, based on Once Upon a Chef’s wonderful recipe, tweaked slightly by me. As usual. ‘Cause that’s just what I do.

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INGREDIENTS
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
14 oz bag of sweetened coconut flakes

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1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond essence
1 teaspoon cinnamon

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1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup rum

METHOD

As with any baking, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature before you start, particularly the eggs. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Using your most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer, whisk the egg whites and the salt until they are fluffy and stiff, and hold a point. This is what you want.

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In another bowl, combine the coconut, the milk, and the vanilla, almond and cinnamon. Mix well and set aside.

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Fold the fluffy egg whites into the coconut mixture, making sure to get some air into the batter. This will make them light and give them texture, as well as adding to the flavor.

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Scoop about a tablespoon measure each onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Don’t put them too closely together, or they’ll meld together or burn.

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Pop into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When the tops are golden brown, take them out of the oven and allow to cool.

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In a metal saucepan, very gently heat the heavy cream just until bubbles start forming around the sides. Turn off the heat, put in the chocolate chips, cover and leave for 10 minutes.

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Stir together and witness the alchemy of cooking when you see the luscious chocolate ganache form. Add the rum, stir together and let cool slightly.

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Dip in the bottom of each coconut macaroon, and when each one has a nice, chocolaty bottom, put in the refrigerator to cool thoroughly.

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Drizzle the remaining chocolate artistically (and you can see how well I did it!) over the macaroons, then chill in the refrigerator for an hour, so the chocolate can set.

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Eat, in true repressed British style, with a cup of strong Earl Grey tea, or enjoy as an afternoon snack with a glass of wine. Much more Italian that way, I think.

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With the rum flavoring in the chocolate, and the additions of the almond and cinnamon, these macaroons have a lovely, exotic taste that hints at a vacation by the sea, preferably in an Italian villa.