Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

I was first given the book Winter’s Tale by a woman who worked with me in a law firm,  several years ago. She was an odd woman, claiming to be psychic and in touch with – in her own words – “the universal forces.”

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She was a practicing Wiccan, though it turns out she was in love with my then-boss and was using her Wiccan powers to try to destroy his marriage so she could have him. I digress slightly, but it was she who introduced me to this wonderful and mystical novel that encompasses magical realism, fantasy, history, metaphysics, and time travel, so I associate her with this novel. I suppose we all have that strange individual who has crossed our paths and made an unusual impression, whether good or bad.

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I love magical realism in books, though in my own humble opinion the Latin American writers do it best. Cases in point: Rudolfo Anaya, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, and pretty much every book written by the late, great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom I blogged about twice previously. But Mark Helprin brings snowy, turn-of-the-century New York City in a slightly alternate universe, into this magically realistic universe so beautifully. The endless clashes of good and evil, love and hate, life and death, and the eternity beyond it all, are described in such a way that you are transported there.

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The love story between Peter Lake, an Irish immigrant who is later granted supernatural powers, and Beverly Penn, the heiress dying of consumption, is stronger than death, stronger than time, and it’s that love story that colors the entire book.

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When I recently finished rereading this book, I was filled with joy and sadness; that such a world exists and that the book containing it had to come to an end. One of the lines that touched my heart and hit me so strongly in the heart was this one:  “Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is shatter time and bring back the dead.” For anyone who has ever loved and lost, whether it be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a grandparent, or a lover, this line is particularly poignant. We all want to shatter time and bring these people back…….whether they have actually passed on from this world or whether it is the love between us that died.

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Peter Lake is on the run from the unusual creature Pearly Soames – devil? demon? – with whom he has previously associated and who now wants to kill him. A magical white horse called Athansor has appeared to whisk him to safety, which he finds in a hidden garret in Grand Central Station. He is able to safely stable the horse, rest, and being hungry from his recent adventures, proceeds to cook himself a delicious meal of seafood stew.

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With his strength renewed, he realized that he was ravenously hungry, and proceeded to cook an excellent bouillabaisse culled from cans of varied fish, tomatoes, wine, oil and an enormous bottle of Saratoga spring water.

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I have yet to meet a combination of fish and tomatoes I don’t love. Bouillabaisse was something I’d yet to try, though, so today, a cold, windy day heralding the beginning of winter, seemed the appropriate time to recreate Peter Lake’s homemade meal.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on methods from Emeril Lagasse and the marvelous The Ultimate Book of Fish & Shellfish by Kate Whiteman, which has a place of honor among my cookbooks. There are many ideas about what constitutes proper bouillabaisse, but the overall consensus is that you can essentially use whichever fish and shellfish you’d like, and make the classic rouille to garnish the bread eaten with this dish.

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INGREDIENTS
1 small roasted red pepper, peeled and deseeded
2 chunks of baguette, torn into pieces
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

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1 egg yolk
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
7 cloves of garlic, minced (4 for the bouillabaisse, 3 for the rouille)
4 cups fish stock
1/2 cup Pernod
1/2 cup clam juice
2 leeks, white part only, washed and cut into rings
Handful of chopped parsley
1 fennel bulb

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Zest and juice of one orange
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, whole
Pinch of saffron threads

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4 bay leaves
8 ripe beefsteak or Campari tomatoes
4 small red potatoes, cubed
1 lb frozen salmon, cut into large chunks
1 lb. frozen cod, cut into large chunks
2 cups frozen shrimp, deveined and peeled but with tails attached
2 cups frozen clams in their shells
Remainder of the baguette, cut into thick slices

METHOD
For the rouille:
Combine the torn-up 2 baguette pieces, the roasted red pepper, 3 of the peeled garlic cloves, the Dijon mustard, the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the salt and pepper in a food processor. Mix until smooth, then slowly add the olive oil.

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Mix again until you have a smooth, thick emulsion. Set aside.

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For the bouillabaisse:
Saute the onion, celery and garlic in a bit of olive oil. Add the bay leaves and peppercorns. Add the leeks and the fennel, and saute for another 5 minutes, or until soft.

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Grate in the orange zest here, and then squeeze in the juice to the broth.

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Add 3 cups of the seafood stock. Stir to mix and simmer another 5 minutes. Then add the diced tomatoes.

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Add the Pernod, the tomato bouillon cube, the saffron, and the remainder of the fish stock. Allow to cook another 10-15 minutes, so the flavors mingle. You’ll be able to smell the saline of the stock and the anise of the liqueur.

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Once your broth has simmered 15 minutes, add a half-cup of clam juice and blend to a thick, smooth consistency with a stick blender. Toss in the parsley.

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Heat the oven broiler at this point. You’ll know why in a moment. Add the potatoes to the broth. Cook another 15 minutes, or until they soften. Add in your fish at this stage, but stagger based on thickness and delicacy. The idea is to have all the fish cooked perfectly. Add the cod and the salmon chunks first and cook for 6 minutes.

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Toss in the clams and enjoy that clatter of shells in the soup pot. Cook another 6 minutes, until the clams open up. Discard any that don’t open, unless you enjoy pain. Add the shrimp and cook until they turn pink.

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While the fish is cooking, toast the baguette slices under the broiler for 1 minute.  Remove, and spread with the rouille sauce.

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In a bowl, place 3 chunks of rouille-smeared bread. Ladle over some of the fish and the heavenly-scented broth. Drizzle over a bit of the rouille sauce.

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This is truly heaven in a bowl for seafood lovers. Rich, delicate and with a mix of green and salty, savory flavors that hit your tongue like a golden kiss. Soooooooooo good, and perfect for a chilly winter’s day.

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Very much a fairy tale for adults, Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a London commuter who stops to help a young woman lying bleeding on the sidewalk one night, and finds himself in the alternate universe of London Underground. The parallels with Alice in Wonderland are fairly obvious – falling into an underground alternate reality, coming of age – yet this is a much darker and bloodier otherworld.

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Without giving too much away, the inverses in London Underground are pretty fascinating. Angels are evil, doors can be opened to anywhere, and the environment resembles more of a medieval estate than modern London. Richard goes through a significant transformation when he is there. He goes from being a young, rather naive man who is willing tolerate bad behavior from his fiancee because he simply thinks this is how it is, to having a mind and will of his own. He knows he is worthy of so much more, because he’s proven himself. In many ways, this book is a “bildungsroman” as it details his transformation from boy to man.

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In one passage, Richard and Door, the young woman he stopped to help and who essentially brought him to London Underground, wake up with ungodly hangovers from drinking heavenly wine with the Angel Islington. They’ve been found by Serpentine, a type of Amazon woman and part of a group of women who act as hunter/protectors and who, in her rough way, tries to help with the hangovers by feeding the two of them. Quite ironically, I too, woke up with a hangover this morning – my first in many years. I blame my friends Jake, Maggie and Heather, without whom I would not have overindulged in red wine last night. But we had a marvelous time, and this quiche can cure any hangover. It certainly did mine.

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“What is there to eat?” asked Hunter. Serpentine looked at the wasp-waisted woman in the doorway. “Well?” she asked. The woman smiled the chilliest smile Richard had ever seen cross a human face, then she said, “Fried eggs poached eggs pickled eggs curried venison pickled onions pickled herrings smoked herrings salted herrings mushroom stew salted bacon stuffed cabbage calves foot jelly – “

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While pickled eggs DO NOT have any kind of attraction for me, the savory tastes of fried eggs, salted bacon and mushrooms caught my attention. Remembering the wonderful fried tomatoes I had as part of a delicious morning meal when visiting London a few years ago, I decided a riff on the classic British breakfast was in order.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1.5 cups regular flour
4 tablespoons unsalted, chilled butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons chilled shortening, also cubed

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1/4 cup ice-cold water
5 slices of smoked bacon, good quality
4 eggs
Salt and pepper to taste
1 carton sliced mushrooms
1 tablespoon of garlic powder
1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves
1/2 cup of half and half or heavy cream
2 large tomatoes, sliced
1 cup of grated cheese – I used a mixture of sharp cheddar and Monterey Jack

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METHOD

Gradually mix together the flour, the cubed butter and the cubed shortening until it forms a “rubbly” texture. I used my most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer with the pastry hook attachment. It’s important that your butter and shortening are cold cold cold.

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Gradually add the cold water until a dough is formed. Mine was sticky so I added a bit more flour to the mixer. Wrap the dough in plastic, form it into a ball and knead it a bit before refrigerating.

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Heat the oven to 375F. Remove the dough from the fridge and roll it out on a floured surface. Don’t use your kitchen counter as you will have a mess and if you’re doing it recovering from a hangover, it will not make you happy. Trust me.

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Press the rolled-out dough into a pie pan. Chill it again for another 10 minutes. Poke a few holes in the bottom crust with a fork. Then bake the empty quiche shell for 10 minutes.

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While the crust is both chilling and baking, fry the bacon in a little bit of  olive oil. Remove and drain, then crumble.

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Cook the mushrooms, garlic powder and thyme leaves in the bacon oil for about 10 minutes. The smell is out of this world! But do watch out for spatters from the hot oil.

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In a separate bowl, add the eggs, salt and pepper. Whisk together, then add the slightly cooled mushrooms and the bacon. Add in the heavy cream and the cheese and whisk together again.

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Pour into the slightly baked quiche pieshell and top with the sliced tomatoes. Isn’t that pretty?

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Bake for up to 50 minutes, checking occasionally. When the crust is golden-brown, that’s usually when it’s ready. The filling will have set, and the smell of the mushrooms and the savory scent of roasting tomatoes will also give you a hint.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and serve in generous slices. Accompany it with a hibiscus cocktail, which is champagne and cranberry juice, very necessary “hair of the dog” for a hangover. The flavors are luscious – the sharp cheese, the savory tomatoes, the salty bacon and the nicely set eggs, set off by the bosky taste of the mushrooms.

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The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch

Though an interesting read, it was also occasionally difficult to continue The Sea, The Sea, so convoluted are the mental musings of Charles Arrowby, the main character. I never fully connected to him or any other character, though the setting – an isolated house on a cliff overlooking the ocean – sounds appropriately Gothic and Romantic and just where I would like to spend my summer vacation. Minus the sea dragons, of course.

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Charles is a pain in the ass, quite frankly. He’s arrogant as hell, he writes about the most mundane things in his daily life as though they were momentous occasions, and he suffers under grand delusions that he is adored and that everyone sees the world in the exact same way he does – with him at the center of everything. Although, as he starts having his “delusions,” I felt a bit sorry for him; and when he becomes convinced that his first love, Hartley, still carries a torch for him (even though she’s been married for years, has children and shows no desire to rekindle the flame), I felt like he was crossing the line into total madness.

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I think it’s safe to say that the sea is supposed to be something of a parallel for Charles’s moods. It’s calm, he has his moments of calmness. It rages and wreaks havoc………so does he in the lives of those he claims to care for. It’s a fascinating read, if you can work through all the daily detail and the inner workings of a rather twisted male mind (though I’ve yet to meet a male mind that wasn’t twisted). But the luscious descriptions of food and meals that he eats and details in his diary were his saving grace and provided me with a lot of cooking inspiration.

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Lentil soup with chipolata sausages and onions and apples! Scrambled eggs with frankfurters and grilled tomatoes with garlic! Corned beef with red cabbage and pickled walnuts! Baked potatoes with cream cheese and lemon! Macaroni and cheese with garlic, basil, olive oil, more cheese and courgettes (which are zucchini – I had to look that one up.) Anchovy paste on toast with baked beans, tomatoes, celery, lemon juice and olive oil!  He also drinks wine by the gallon, so he isn’t completely without good qualities. And the man loves his food. As do we all.

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“Of course reading and thinking are important, but my God, food is important, too. How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.”

I love lentil soup, and recently found a delicious one, and here’s the wonderful recipe, on Chocolate and Zucchini’s most excellent blog. I used it as a base, but as usual, with my own added taste tweaks. Having recently purchased my first stove-top grill pan, some grilled shrimp also seemed to be in order. And with that vacuum-sealed bag of fresh, peeled chestnuts waiting in my pantry……..It was meant to be.

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INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 red onion, peeled
4 cloves of garlic
1 rib of celery
1 and 1/2 cups lentils, any type
3 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1 and 1/2 cups fresh chestnuts, peeled
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cups shrimp, deveined and thawed, but still with their tails attached
Wooden skewers soaked in water for an hour

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METHOD
Chop the onion and garlic in a food processor, or with a mezzaluna. I love using my mezzaluna. It makes even a total klutz like me look like I know what I’m doing.

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In a large pan, heat the butter and olive oil. Add the chopped garlic and onion, sprinkle over some salt and pepper, and cook on low for about 10 minutes. The smell will rise up and hit your nose like savory heaven! Then, add the fresh herbs and stir for another five minutes.

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Add the bay leaves and the lentils and give them a good stir, so they get covered with the oil, butter and cooked veggies.

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Add the chicken broth and the bouillon paste. Stir gently, lower the heat, cover with a (preferably see-through) lid, and cook at a very low simmer for 30 minutes.

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After half an hour, add the chestnuts. Cook another 30 minutes.

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I know it’s hard, but try your hardest to resist taking the lid off and stirring the lentils while cooking. Try really hard. When they keep getting hit with air and being stirred during cooking, they get mushy. So just don’t. Have a glass of wine to distract yourself if you must.

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You can either use a stick blender or a regular blender to puree this soup into a thick, luscious, unctuous mix. I chose the stick blender simply because it’s easier to clean, and I enjoy watching the puree process. I’m weird like that.

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Cover the pureed soup to stay warm, and heat your grill pan. Sprinkle garlic powder, salt and pepper onto the shrimp for seasoning. Then, thread 5-6 shrimp on a waterlogged skewer, and grill in the heated grill pan. Watch the shrimp closely and when they get pink and striped like a tiger, immediately remove.

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Cook the bacon in the same pan, and when cool, crumble.

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Decant the soup into bowls and add a swirl of heavy cream to each one. Garnish with the beautiful grilled shrimp, and bacon, unless you’re a vegetarian……and if you are, my sincere condolences.

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Eat, in Charles Arrowby style, with great enjoyment and copious amounts of red wine.

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The soup is lovely, well seasoned, and the shrimp add a delicious, saline note that wonderfully offsets the richness of the chestnuts and the earthiness of the lentils. Soooooo good, and rewarms beautifully and deliciously the next day, too.

The Dead House by Billy O’Callaghan

What I found fascinating about The Dead House is the fact that it’s narrated in first person by a character who is not the focus of the story, but whose own story is as much a part of the overall arc as the main character. Mike is an art dealer and his best friend is Maggie, an artist whom he represents. She’s been recently from the hospital after having been savagely assaulted by her ex-boyfriend. She finds an old cottage in the Irish countryside, starts fixing it up in anticipation of painting something new, and invites Mike, his future wife Alison, and another friend and they spend the weekend exploring, drinking, cooking, laughing, and on the last night, playing with an Ouija board. Because what else would anyone want to do in a seaside cottage on the isolated Irish coast in a country that boasts its fair share of ghosts, spirits, pagan gods and other creepy things? And of course, we all know that when we are dumb enough to play with the supernatural, it almost always plays back with us.

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Maggie becomes even more isolated at the cottage as whatever spirit that was summoned by the Ouija board starts spending more and more time in her company. Ack! Mike, whose relationship with Alison is developing and which is described in lovely and realistic detail of a true love match (but in a way that’s not mushy or sappy, thank God), and when he goes to visit Maggie yet again and sees how her world is deteriorating, all else goes to Hell. Literally and figuratively.

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The aspect of the story I found difficult was the fact that Maggie, although the de facto focus of the story, is never truly given a personality or background. We know she’s an artist, we know she’s drawn to men who don’t treat her well, we know she’s somewhat of a lost soul, we know she’s a creative type with an odd connection to the stranger things in life, but we never really understand why she is the way she is. Mike talks about Maggie from almost an emotional remove, perhaps it’s because what happens to Maggie ultimately ends up affecting his own life……….but enough spoilers.

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Overall, I loved this unique ghost story, heavy with the menacing sense that Ireland’s history is still with us today and is as scary and haunting as it was hundreds of years ago when blood sacrifices to their pagan gods were the order of the day. Also, O’Callaghan writes so beautifully about the nature in Ireland – the rocks, the glint of sunshine on the ocean, the various trees and flowers and plants that make the countryside into such a picture-perfect place.

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Before the sh*t hits the fan with the Ouija board, the four friends spend one evening making a communal meal of spaghetti Bolognese, or spag bol, as it is called in the United Kingdom. I thought a nice potful of Bolognese sauce was in order, so that’s what I made,  based on the late, great Antonio Carluccio, who insists there be no herbs whatsoever. And yes, I know it’s weird to make an Italian classic from a book set in Ireland. Don’t write in.

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INGREDIENTS
6 chicken livers
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 baby carrots, finely chopped
2-3 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 head of roasted garlic
3 ounces ground beef
3 ounces ground pork
1 cup pancetta, finely chopped
4 generous tablespoons good-quality tomato paste
1 glass dry red wine
1 cup chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Firstly, soak the chicken livers in milk overnight in the refrigerator. Please trust me here. They add such a depth of savory flavor that is so delicious and when cooked and mashed in the sauce, thicken it deliciously.

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Rinse the chicken livers, pat dry and fry in butter for about 5 minutes per side. Let cool.

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Melt the oil and butter together in a large pot, and add in the chopped carrot, celery and onion. Saute for about 5 minutes, then squeeze in the roasted cloves of garlic. The smell is out of this world good!

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Add the ground pork, ground beef, and pancetta, and stir together so that the juices from the meats mingle with the flavor of the vegetables. Let cook for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally so things don’t stick. You want to cook it until it’s almost dry, as this adds to the texture.

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Pour in the tomato paste, and stir around. The color is like a deep brick red, very different than the color you get from cooking with crushed tomatoes.

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Pour in the red wine and the chicken stock, and stir to mix. You will still have a thick texture, but the wine and stock thin it and add to the flavor.

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After 10 minutes, add in the chicken livers, and using a wooden spoon, mash them against the side of the pot to thicken the sauce.

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Turn the heat to low, stir again, cover and let simmer gently for up to 2 hours, checking on it occasionally. Add in more wine or stock if necessary.

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Serve with spaghetti for a true British spag bol, tagliatelli which is much more traditional in Italy, or if you’re not eating carbs like me, eat with a pile of zucchini noodles, which are excellent! The sauce itself is so good, complex and thick and rich, yet with a hint of sweetness. Delicious!

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Jane Eyre: An Autobiography by Charlotte Bronte

I ain’t gonna deny it, Mr. Rochester is SEXY! Oh my lord almighty. Dark, mysterious, distant and yet romantic, rides a horse, is sarcastic, dresses in black. I could bang Mr. Rochester like a screen door from here til August……though it may also have to do with the fact that my very first big-screen Mr. Rochester was played by the ever-so-sexy Timothy Dalton, whom I adored as James Bond, and with whom I could have happily stayed in bed all day as his character Sir Malcolm Murray in Penny Dreadful.

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Oh, the plotline? Ahem. (fanning myself)

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It’s one trial after tribulation for poor Jane Eyre. Set in Victorian England, Jane Eyre is orphaned as a child, and goes to live with her horrible aunt and horrible cousins. She is later sent to a horrible boarding school with mostly horrible teachers and a horrible headmaster. She does become friends with Helen, who of course, dies horribly and leaves Jane alone. Jane grows up and becomes a model student, and has such good school credentials that she is able to apply for governess positions. She is hired to work caring for a little French girl called Adele at Thornfield Hall. The master of Thornfield Hall is the moody, brooding, sarcastic, attractive (of course he is!) Mr. Rochester. And the fun begins.

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Jane finds herself falling in love with Mr. Rochester – who wouldn’t in that setting? – and they end up becoming engaged. But there is a mystery at the heart of Thornfield Hall, that being Mr. Rochester still has a wife, albeit a lunatic nutcase named Berthe whom he keeps in the attic with a nurse, medications, padded walls, etc., so she can’t escape and cause harm. But the truth comes out on Jane and Mr. Rochester’s wedding day.

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If you have any kind of a heart or sense, you’ll figure out how it all ends. But as with all good books, the pleasure lies in the journey and not the destination. I’d held off reading it for many years, partly because I already knew the storyline from the numerous movie and TV versions out there, and partly because I was expecting lugubrious, long-winded prose that went on for pages before moving the story forward. Not so, and I was pleasantly surprised at how timeless the book is. Jane is a great character, self-aware and self-effacing, yet honest with herself and others.

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Being set in Victorian England, the usual food mentions abound. Tea, bread, cakes, butter, eggs, roast beef, potatoes, etc. There’s a passage when Jane and Adele are waiting for a large party to start at Thornfield Hall, when Mr. Rochester has purposely invited Blanche Ingram and pretends to fall in love with her, to somewhat torture Jane. Jane and Adele await their summons as they enjoy a nice meal.

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“Do you think Mr. Rochester will send for us by-and-by, after dinner?” “No, indeed, I don’t; Mr. Rochester has something else to think about. Never mind the ladies to-night; perhaps you will see them to-morrow. Here is your dinner.” She was really hungry, so the chicken and tarts secured to divert her attention for a time.

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Not being a sweets person, I thought about savory tarts. Doesn’t that sound yum? Savory chicken tarts with mushrooms and tomatoes were what I decided upon, because those are three of my favorite things, and also because I was watching a rerun of those classic eccentric British cooks, The Two Fat Ladies, and one of them made mini savory tarts topped with tomato. So I was inspired to recreate it in my own way.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup of butter, ice-cold and cut into cubes
1 egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
Ice water, as needed
3 chicken thighs, poached
1/2 cup mushrooms
1 shallot
1 tablespoon each of dried parsley, dried thyme, dried rosemary and dried sage
2 heirloom tomatoes, room temperature
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese

METHOD
For the tart pastry, add the flour into the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid. Add the salt, and cube by cube, mix in the ice-cold butter with the pastry hook attachment so that it gradually amalgamates. You want somewhat of a rubbly texture.

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Add in the egg and increase the mixing speed.

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Add in a dash or two of ice water, and watch the pastry hook mix the dough until it forms a ball. You will likely need to increase the mixing speed but just watch. It’s like magic.

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Dump out the pastry ball onto some plastic, mold it so it’s round, wrap it up, and refrigerate for at least an hour, if not more.

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Poach the chicken thighs for about 30 minutes, and allow to cool before cutting into chunks.

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Saute the mushrooms and shallot with the dried herbs and some garlic powder. Let cool, and mix with the chicken.

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Roll out the pastry dough, and cut out small rounds. Press into a tart pan but don’t stretch the dough. (And you can see why no one has ever said to me “Vanessa, you should really give up your day job and bake tarts!”)

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Fill each tart pan with a mix of chicken, mushroom and shallot, top with tomato slices and sprinkle over some cheese.

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Bake for 20 minutes, until the cheese melts and gets bubbly and brown and luscious. Let cool a bit and remove from the tart pans. Then imagine Mr. Rochester himself feeding them to you, delicious bite by delicious bite. Oh my!

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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I didn’t intend to do a blog post this week for several reasons, the main one being that my dearest and only aunt – my dad’s younger sister to whom I am very close – had an unexpected triple-bypass on Friday and that has been weighing on me. She came out of the surgery all right, but it was still a very worrying experience. Coupled with a very ugly fight with one of my sisters (it’s funny how stress can bring out the worst in families, isn’t it?), my heart wasn’t into doing much this weekend. But I came across The Rules of Magic on one of my bookshelves and thought “hey, this will be a total escape.”

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It was simply reading for the sheer pleasure, something that I sometimes forget about doing. Reading is, after all, a true pleasure with the feel of the pages, that sense of just falling into whatever world you’ve chosen, and when you come back to yourself, it’s almost a shock that the world is still there.

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If you’ve read Hoffman’s earlier book Practical Magic, you’ll recognize the characters of Frannie and Jet Owens. In the first book, they are the great-aunts of Sally and Gillian, and in this book, they take center stage. Frannie and Jet and their brother Vincent are raised away from the shadow of their notorious witch family in a stable, upwardly mobile manner. Their mother wants nothing to do with the magic that has touched and shaped their family for centuries, and love is the element to be avoided in this book. The three Owens children are raised to never fall in love, but when Aunt Isabelle enters their lives, she connects them with their heritage of magic and witchcraft and spells and it’s so beautifully described that I wished I’d been raised as a witch.

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I think the element I loved most in this book was the sheer sensuality of how scents are described, so vividly that my mouth almost watered. The herbs used in their spells, various recipes, the delicious smells of peppermint, patchouli, flowers, eucalyptus, chocolate, almonds, and most delectably, the savory scent of bacon. And of course, there was that passage that set the tone for how the children are perceived by other kids, describing how eerie Franny and Jet are in their youth.

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“Soon enough the other students knew not to irritate the Owens sisters, not if they didn’t want to trip over their own shoes or find themselves stuttering when called upon to give a report. There was something about the sisters that felt dangerous, even when all they were doing was eating tomato sandwiches in the lunchroom or searching for novels in the library.”

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I mean, it’s a total food and books reference RIGHT THERE! Eating tomato sandwiches! Looking for books! I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect passage. And a tomato sandwich – yum! Still, a plain old tomato sandwich, tasty as it, can be made better when you have a couple of ripe avocadoes, some bacon and a bit of imagination. Here’s my take on the Owens sisters’ tomato sandwiches. Magic is optional. But make sure everything is at room temperature, particularly the tomatoes.

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INGREDIENTS
1 ripe avocado
1 heirloom tomato
4 strips bacon
1 slice good quality bread, any type you want
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Fry the bacon and enjoy the salty, savory scent of it. I seriously don’t know how anyone could be a vegetarian with the smell of bacon around. Drain on a paper towel.

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Deseed the tomato and slice it into somewhat thick rounds. Add a bit of salt to the tomato slices.

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Mash the avocado and season it with the crushed red pepper, the lemon juice, and the salt and pepper.

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Toast the bread, and slather on the mashed avocado.

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Put the tomato rounds on top of the avocado, then add the bacon slices. Admire the lovely colors and textures before applying to your face. Sooooooooooo yum, and comforting too!

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The Vacationers by Emma Straub

This book was previously blogged about by a fellow food blogger, Cara Nicoletti, whose page Yummy Books was one of the inspirations for starting my own food and book blog. The Vacationers is about a family’s secrets and dysfunctions that come out over two weeks when they are vacationing in their house in Mallorca. I know, I know, it all sounds very dramatic and mysterious, but ultimately, it’s not.

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Though I always try to give every book a fair shake, I have to say that this one was  boring. Franny and Jim, the two main characters/couple/parents, are celebrating their 35th anniversary during the vacation, their daughter Sylvia just finished high school and hates her family (wow, big surprise, a teenager hating her family), the token gay couple, and the son and his beautiful girlfriend that everyone hates. Pretty cardboard and standard characters – the wealthy family, the cheating husband, the unhappy wife planning to leave the marriage, the spoiled kids – to whom I had a very hard time finding any point of relating.

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I did like Franny’s foodie-ness (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) and her love of cooking to work out her irritations and frustrations through her culinary adventures. Kind of like me! It’s nicely written, don’t get me wrong. The descriptions of the beach, the ocean, the house, the food………all are beautiful and lyrical. But the characters really aren’t likable, other than Carmen (the girlfriend everyone loves to despise), and overall, it just didn’t grab me and stay with me, though this food passage made me start salivating a little bit.

 Franny and the boys were making dinner – bacalao on toast, shrimp in a garlicky sauce, wilted greens. Tapas at home.

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I didn’t have the wherewithal to soak bacalao for 24 hours before putting it onto toast, good as that sounded. However, some garlicky shrimp with tomatoes and wilted spinach  sounded very doable, simple, and tasty. I had a packet of tortellini that needed to be used, and so I combined them, thus evoking a summer’s evening overlooking the crashing ocean waves.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 dozen grape tomatoes, halved
10 cloves of garlic, thinly slivered
1 small shallot, thinly slivered
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons red pepper flakes
1 lb partially thawed shrimp, tail on
4 cups fresh spinach
1 packet cheese tortellini

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METHOD
Boil a large potful of water, add a generous handful of sea salt, and cook the tortellini for about 5-7 minutes. Test it to ensure it is al dente, and save a cupful of the cooking water.

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In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently cook the grape tomatoes, garlic and shallot for about 10 minutes.

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Splash in the white wine, the lemon juice, and the red pepper flakes, and cook together another couple of minutes. Pour in a little bit of the pasta cooking water to help thicken the sauce and give some structure.

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Add the spinach, stir, and cover again, cooking for about 10 minutes so that it wilts.

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Add the shrimp to the mixture, cover and leave to cook for 5-10 minutes, checking frequently so the shrimp doesn’t overcook. When they are pink and plump, everything is ready.

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Toss in the cooked tortellini, stir and cook another couple of minutes, so all the flavors are mixed and mingled. Then serve and eat with happiness. Delicious, just like a day at the beach!

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The Apprentice by Jacques Pépin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Face by Dean Koontz

I’ve been reading Dean Koontz’s books since I was in 7th grade and came across one in the school library at St. Michael’s Catholic School, and devoured it in three hours. I was hooked from then on, though his books are definitely hit-or-miss. His style has evolved  over the years, from the straightforward horror of serial murderers,  scientifically modified creatures escaped from laboratories, and crazed voodoo killers, to more metaphysical meanderings over the years. He has written about life after death, surviving plane crashes, reincarnations………with his unique style of description. He knows how to create characters that stay with you.

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The Face is my own personal favorite, because it seamlessly melds the metaphysical with the supernatural with the harsh reality of modern-day Los Angeles. The main character, Ethan Truman, is a retired police officer who now is head of security for a world-famous actor. His childhood best friend Duncan Wheeler has recently died – or has he? – and it is this “death” and some very creepy and strange letters addressed to his movie-star employer from an unknown stalker, that propel him into this mystery.

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There is, of course, the serial stalker/killer Corky Laputa who provides the intense antagonist viewpoint, and the child character, Aelfric, who provides Ethan with someone to protect and is at the heart of one of the book’s most throat-grabbing mysteries. It’s a seriously good read, but also made me think about quite a lot of stuff.

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The metaphysical meanderings on life, death, good, evil, Heaven and Hell, are what I particularly enjoyed, because these are questions we all ask ourselves. Does good always win over evil? Is there life after death? What truly awaits us after we die? Are we so certain we’ll end up in Heaven or Hell, or whatever constitutes our personal visions of these places?

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In one scene, Ethan meets up with his former police partner, Hazard Yancy, and one of my favorite characters. Yancy is still on the LAPD, a detective with a huge appetite and heart of gold. Ethan buys him lunch at a local Armenian restaurant, and Yancy essentially orders the entire menu. Ethan has just had an intense scare involving a potential suspect in the stalking case, and he is questioning his entire grip on his sanity, and reality. His order of Moroccan salmon and couscous goes uneaten, though it sounded quite delicious.

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Two waitresses were required to bring all the food to the table. Hazard grinned and nodded as each dish was placed before him: “Nice. Nice. That’s nice. Real nice. Oh, very nice.” The memory of being shot in the gut spoiled Ethan’s appetite. As he picked at his Moroccan salmon and couscous, he delayed bringing up the issue of Rolf Reynerd.

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So this was my latest recipe – salmon with a Moroccan-style sauce called chermoula and lemony couscous studded with fresh vegetables – inspired both by this wonderful book and a great desire for some clean eating after the excesses of Thanksgiving Day.

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INGREDIENTS
For the salmon and chermoula sauce:
4 salmon fillets, deboned and deskinned
6 cloves of garlic, divided
2 tablespoons cumin
Pinch of saffron threads, soaked in a bit of white wine or chicken stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 green onions, sliced
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon fresh mint
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes

For the couscous:
1 cup couscous
2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup frozen peas
1 cup grape tomatoes, cut in half

METHOD
In a small food chopper, add the garlic cloves, cumin, green onions, saffron, mint, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice, some salt, and chili flakes. Pulse until well mixed.

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Brush the top of the salmon fillets with the chermoula sauce and let sit for up to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

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Heat a stovetop grill pan to medium high, and grill the salmon fillets about 3-4 minutes per side. Let cool while you make the couscous.

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Boil the chicken stock with the remaining tablespoons of lemon juice, and pour it over the couscous.  Add the peas and tomatoes, stir briefly, cover with plastic wrap and let the liquid absorb, about 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork.

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Serve the salmon atop a bed of couscous, and garnish with the remaining chermoula sauce. Apply to your face.

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The House of Lost Souls by F.G. Cottam

In October, my thoughts don’t turn to pumpkin spice láttes, autumn leaves falling gently to the ground, or the evocative scent of woodsmoke. No, when the fall brings that nippy chill to the air, this girl thinks haunted houses, ghosts, spirits (the non-alcoholic kind), and of course, Halloween!

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Being the season of the witch and all things creepy and supernatural, The House of Lost Souls is the perfect book to curl up with and frighten yourself. The first book by author F.G. Cottam that I ever read, it’s a quick read that brings vividly to life the literal and figurative spirits haunting Paul Seaton in modern-day London.

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Paul spent 10 years of his life trying to forget the horrors he experienced at the Fischer House, where he ventured in search of information about the elusive Pandora Gibson-Hoare, a 1920s photographer who is the topic of his girlfriend’s university thesis. In his research, he learns of Pandora’s involvement with the occult, Aleister Crowley – because what occult book DOESN’T feature Crowley – and Pandora’s ill-fated attempts to stop the evil at the Fischer House in the years before WWII. He is sucked back into the drama by Nick Mason, whose younger sister went to the Fisher House as part of her own university studies and who also experiences terrifying events that nearly drive her to suicide.

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Not your typical haunted house tale, the story focuses on the demons and ghosts that haunt us as individuals, and the choices we make as a result.  There is some musing on the ephemeral nature of evil and how it translates to concrete action in the material world. In other words, “we are spirits, in the material world,” with apologies to Sting. But we are all haunted in some way, I think, just as Paul is. He’s an Everyman character in that he’s not particularly heroic or brave. He’s driven as much by guilt from the past as he is curiosity about the exact nature of evil and the Fischer House, and an obsession for the long-dead Pandora.

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In his early days of research as a journalist, when he is on the trail of Pandora’s final days, he bribes a fellow reporter Mike for information on her death with a lunch at Arthur’s Cafe, known for its delicious mixed grill dishes.

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In the beige decor and stifling heat of the cafe, Mike worked through the mixed grill Arthur had ordered on his behalf while Seaton neglected a plate piled high with meat lasagne. He sipped from his glass of Coke.

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Not having ever had a mixed grill, I learned it is typically a dish that includes two or three grilled meats such as chops, steak, and sausage, grilled onions, grilled tomatoes, and possibly grilled mushrooms and a fried egg. I chose instead to make a mixed grill that included grilled steak, a grilled pork chop, a grilled sausage, and grilled tomatoes and onions, because to me, there is nothing as delicious as a huge pile of grilled onions atop a nice slab of meat.

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Vegetarians, turn away now. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 sausage link of your choice
1 5 oz. tenderloin steak
1 5 oz. pork chop
1 large Beefsteak tomato
1 large white or yellow onion
2 tablespoons butter

METHOD
Heat the butter and melt it in a stovetop grill with ridge marks. This is preferable for stovetop cooking, as your food gets those nice cooking ridge marks. Add your sausage. Yes, it’s very phallic. Don’t write in.

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Add your steak.

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Add your chop. Sprinkle salt on the chop and the steak, and dab a bit of butter on all three meats.

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Cook on medium heat for approximately 20 minutes, turning every 5-7 minutes to ensure even cooking and those aforementioned grill marks. How well cooked you want your meat is completely up to you, so you may want to adjust heat or length of time, or take one piece off the grill while cooking others.

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Remove the meat to a plate to rest and let the juices run back in, and slice your onion into thick rings. Add to the smoking hot grill. Being so thick, they will take a bit of time to cook, so be patient.

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Slice the tomato into thick rounds, roughly the same size as the onions. Lay them on the grill, and cook for about 10-15 minutes, turning twice to get even grill marks.

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Assemble your plate of British goodness and apply directly to your face. And yes, that is indeed a little pug in the top photo. It’s my new fur baby Roxie, whom I adore and love to pieces. October, in addition to being the Season of the Witch, is also Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, so I adopted her. She’s awesome!

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Another photo of my Roxanna Banana, also known as Roxy, and one of me, very happy to have her with me, as you can see her loafing in the background.

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