The Homecoming by Andrew Pyper

I love being scared, although I prefer my frights to come from supernatural elements like ghosts, vampires, demons, witches, and the like. Scares that come from real-life terrors like serial killers, home invasions, break-ins, freak me out so badly that I can’t read about them or watch them. It’s just too close to home, pardon the pun. Andrew Pyper is the kind of writer that perfectly expresses both the horror of the supernatural with the eerie “otherness” of human frailty, and he combines them perfectly in this bizarre and creepy read, so even though it ostensibly is about the breaching of one home’s security, it is also about the breaching of our own sense of identity and the concept of what home and security really mean. Which is scary enough to ponder in real life, I might add.

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The Homecoming follows the general trajectory of what you’d expect from a book with this title. Aaron, a surgeon, learns of his father’s recent death and joins his mother and two sisters Bridget and Franny, at the strange estate his father has mandated they must all stay at for 30 days in order to inherit the money in his will. The estate, called Belfountain, is unknown to them all, except it’s not really because Bridget starts remembering being brought there years earlier. So you know some weirdness is going to come at you from left field…………and yuppers, it does!

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They are joined by four other people who claim to be their siblings – you know, the ol’ sister from another mister kind of situation – and they all settle in, trying to come to terms with their father’s “betrayal” of having another entire family, and learning about each new sibling’s odd personal dynamics. And of course, the scary stuff kicks into high gear, including being chased by what appears to be a witch, being stalked by an ax-wielding crazy man, and being cut off from the world against their will. Odd memories start to surface in all of them, and even creepier, they all start to have the same unusual dream about water and being submerged, and you start thinking it’s some kind of supernatural telekinesis. But boy oh boy, it gets so much more messed up than that!

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Pyper is extremely talented at taking traditional horror tropes like demons, vampires, and other such monsters, and cleverly twisting them together with normal human neuroses until you can’t really be sure what the fuck is happening. He did it so well in The Demonologist, one of my favorite books of his, and he does it again here. This book is a twisted combination of Cabin in the Woods, The Haunting of Hill House, and Jordan Peele’s recent creepy-ass film Us, in that it mixes together the ubiquitous isolated house theme with some messed-up family dynamics combined with the whole “strangers who look like us” and turns it into one of the more unnerving books I’ve read lately.

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When Aaron first arrives with his sister Bridget, their mother is already there, taking charge the way any mother might, getting the kids settled in their rooms, feeding them. It’s kind of funny to see these characters trying so hard to hang onto their sense of normalcy and their traditional family roles in the face of such a bizarre situation, but that is likely what any of us would do in similar circumstances. Hold onto our perception of safety and normalcy, until the illusion is torn away and we realize that there really is no safety and no normal in the world.

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By the time we gather around Mom, she’s laid out Tupperware containers of cold roast chicken, broccoli salad, spinach dip. Picnic food. We set to spooning it onto plates, eating as we stand there together, not wanting to return to the unprotected expanse of the dining room’s banquet table. “That shit’ll kill you,” Franny says as I drop a handful of potato chips onto the side of my plate. “And didn’t you used to run four times a week or something? No offense, Aaron, but don’t you think you could lose a few pounds?”

Oh, siblings. Ain’t they just so great?

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Anyway, broccoli salad isn’t something I have made previously, but the idea of a broccoli-chicken salad, despite the negative overtones of church potlucks and picnics from my misspent youth in Catholic school, sounded pretty damn good. And it is Sunday, after all. It’s as close to church as you’re going to get me these days.

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INGREDIENTS
2 heads broccoli, stemmed and cut into florets
6 strips bacon
1 cup mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 green onions, finely diced
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
4 chicken thighs, poached

METHOD
Blanch the broccoli florets by boiling them for one minute, then submersing in a bowl of ice and cold water. That way, they cook a bit but retain their color. (I hate raw broccoli so for me, this step is necessary but if you like raw broccoli, skip it.)

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While the broccoli is blanching, cook the bacon until crisp, drain on a paper towel, and crumble. Set aside.

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Slice the green onions into small pieces, including the stems, and toss into a large bowl.

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Chop up the toasted walnuts and add to the bowl with the onions.

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Finely chop the poached chicken and add to the green onions, the walnuts and the cooled broccoli.

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Add the mayonnaise and the red wine vinegar to the chicken and onions, and mix together well until everything is nicely coated.

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Sprinkle over the bacon, and taste. This is a savory salad, so if you prefer some sweet contrast, add in some raisins or dried cranberries or perhaps some honey. I personally loathe and despise fruit and chicken together in a salad, so I love it just as it is, nice and salty and savory and full of green flavor. But I’m a salty bitch anyway, so it’s perfect for me.

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Vaporetto 13 by Robert Girardi

Robert Girardi is one of my favorite “unknown” writers. He wrote Madeleine’s Ghost, which I blogged about previously, and Vaporetto 13 is another novel that combines cynicism, hope, the supernatural, and a gorgeous city as the backdrop. In this case, Venice. You can read about what makes Venice so uniquely gorgeous and special by checking out my food blog friend Luca Marchiori’s love letter to Venezia here. Or you can just read this book.

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When I first read Girardi’s novel, I fell in love with the city, and the dark, mysterious, beautiful, and yet sordid labyrinth of bridges, palazzos and stone that was described. Venice comes across like an aging prostitute who still looks beautiful and radiates charm, but yet has a dark, debauched side that also beckons. When I traveled to Venice a few years after reading this book, it struck me that these shadowy back alleys of The Eternal City juxtaposed with the bright, shiny, touristy Venezia, is the real Venice. It is both a jewel box of sumptuous colored glass and shimmering, watery reflections from the canal, and a dark, dank place of crowded buildings, garbage scows and stray cats.

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God, how I love Venice! It is my spiritual home. It is a city that is reflected back upon itself every minute in the waters of the Grand Canal, so full of of life and history and such extreme beauty that, at times, I found myself overwhelmed. There is, after all, only so much stunning golden light and beautiful canals and rosy architecture, that I can handle. Venice is sensory overload in the best sense of the word, and Girardi brings Venice to life so evocatively.

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Re-reading this book as many times as I have, I also have found myself loving the main character, Jack Squire, a money trader with a dark, cynical view on the world. I hated him when I first read the book, but as I have gotten older, I understand him much more. He seems a man that can’t ever be surprised by anything anymore, who looks on the world like a huge roulette table waiting on the ball to hit black, and yet there is still something shiny and hopeful in him that he tries to tuck away. I hate to admit it, but I still have this sense of idealism inside of me, for all that I feel surrounded by such an ugly world sometimes. I still want the good guy to win, I still want people to live happily ever after, I still want love to conquer all. So, it seems, does Jack. When he meets Caterina, a strange, otherworldly Venetian woman with strong ties to the past and history of La Serenissima,  he is struck by her oddness and yet enticed and enthralled by, that very same quality. She speaks to that part of him that is still young, hopeful and believing in miracles. They embark on a very mysterious love affair, yet he is never able to truly penetrate the mystery of who she is. Until the end, when he realizes who………and what…….she is. His view of the world is forever altered.

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One of the more entertaining characters is Jack’s friend, Rinio Donato, a quintessential Italian man, married, Catholic….and a complete womanizer. He is a hoot, and he drags Jack along to Torcello and other lagoon islands, including the very strange and creepy Sant’Ariano, adventuring, eating, and drinking as they go. The food descriptions alone are worth the read. In one passage, Jack attends a celebratory feast at Rinio’s house, where he is felt up by Rinio’s sister and gorges on a luscious Venetian feast that includes rolled veal chops stuffed with prosciutto and gorgonzola, and a salad of escarole, walnut and pear, which are just the precursors to the main feast, a roasted suckling pig with an apple in its mouth.

“The empty pasta bowls were cleared away and replaced with platters of rollini di vitelli – veal chops wrapped around prosciutto and gorgonzola cheese and baked in a marinade of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and white wine. Accompanying this was a salad of escarole, walnuts, and pears, and bottles of sweetish white wine from the Veneto. Italians eat slowly, their meals are long, drawn-out affairs, half food and wine, half air, which is to say animated conversation about nothing and everything.”

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I mean, how could anything stuffed with gorgonzola and prosciutto baked in lemon and olive oil and wine be bad? The store was out of escarole, so I instead opted for a salad of mixed greens with walnuts, pears and a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar and a bit of the blue cheese, to accompany the veal. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

2 veal chops, bone-in, about 1 inch thick apiece
Gorgonzola cheese, or other sharp blue
4 strips prosciutto, finely diced
1 shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup good, drinkable wine, red or white
5 cloves garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater

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Mixed greens – spinach, arugula and chicory is what I had on hand
Walnuts, toasted
2 pears, thinly sliced
Olive oil and lemon juice for the vinaigrette

METHOD

Pre-heat the oven to 375 F. In a small skillet, fry the prosciutto until just brown. Remove, and in the oil left in the pan, saute the diced shallot, with some red wine. Remove from the pan and let cool slightly, while you prepare your veal chops. Cut a small pocket into the veal, opposite side of the bone. Don’t cut all the way through the meat, just enough to be able to stuff the chop.

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Season the veal chops with salt and pepper. Mix the prosciutto and shallot with about half the packet of blue cheese, until nice and creamy but not melty. Stuff each veal chop with the mixture, and fasten with a toothpick to keep the cheese mixture inside the chop.

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In a good saute pan, heat a bit of olive oil and sear each veal chop about 3 minutes per side, but don’t char them. Let them rest a minute while you prepare the baking sauce. Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the white wine and the minced garlic in a cup and whisk together.

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Pour over the stuffed veal chops, reserving a bit for the end, cover, and put them in the oven for 15-20 minutes for a medium doneness, while you prepare the salad and vinaigrette, which is super difficult and time-consuming.

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Throw the mixed leaves into a large bowl, mix in the toasted walnuts, throw in the pears, sprinkle over a bit of the blue cheese, and then drizzle over a bit of olive oil, a bit more lemon juice, some sea salt,  and mix together vigorously. Pour over the salad and toss, probably with your hands to get the best amount of coating. That’s it. Very strenuous, as you can tell.

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You don’t want a lot of vinaigrette, just enough to lightly cover the salad, so using your very clean hands to toss is best here. When done mixing the salad, divide it onto two plates, take the veal from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Pour over the rest of the sauce you originally covered them with, put the chop onto the plate with the salad, and enjoy with some wine, preferably something light and Venetian, but hell, drink whatever type of wine you want! And you can do what I did, which was pretend I was sitting in a sunny cafe alongside the Grand Canal just off the Rialto Bridge, watching vaporettos and gondolas go by, and yearning for my Venice.

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“Still, as Rinio once said, what is a city, if not the people in it? What is Venice, without the peculiar, inventive race of men and women that built her up from the mud and reeds of the lagoon?”

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

In honor of this month’s Fandom Foodie recipe takeover, of which I am the host and the theme of which is food based on Mexican literature and/or inspired by Day of the Dead – el Dia de los Muertos – as well as my adoration for this marvelous book Like Water for Chocolate, I decided to recreate the stuffed poblano peppers that Tita, the main character, makes for a wedding near the end of the book. This wonderful novel, which features a collection of recipes from turn-of-the-century Mexico, is also a sweet and tender love story, and also details the history, secrets, lies and loves of the De La Garza family.

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I loved this book as much for the cooking and luscious food descriptions as for the familiar family problems outlined. The bossy, mean matriarch of the family, her three daughters who play the traditional roles – for awhile, anyway – and the absent father. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of my own family dynamic growing up, and though we didn’t grow up on a farm near the Texas/Mexico border and though my sisters and I took care of my mother during her last illness and though there was love between all of us, there was still a painful dynamic at work in our coming-of-age. I would characterize my late mother’s relationship with her three daughters as complex.

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Back to the book. It’s a compendium of marvelous recipes such as quail with rose petal sauce, Christmas rolls stuffed with delicious ground meat, and a few other interesting variants. But for me, my ultimate, favorite recipe in this book (and my favorite food in Mexican cuisine) is the stuffed pepper. This particular recipe is called chiles en nogada. Here in my home state of New Mexico, stuffed peppers are called chiles rellenos, and different kinds of chile peppers can be used, which you stuff with cheese, then lightly coat in batter and fry. What’s nice about this particular recipe is that it doesn’t call for frying and you really can play around with the stuffing and flavors. Roasting and steaming the peppers and removing their skins is time-consuming, so this is one of those things you make with an entire afternoon to while away and want to really enjoy the creative process of cooking.

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Traditionally, this recipe uses only poblano chiles, but I wanted to honor my New Mexico heritage, so I threw a couple of Hatch green chiles into the mix, and made a few additional tweaks, which I will detail below. Serve with icy-cold Mexican beer or, my personal preference, a nice, sipping shot of good-quality tequila, or indeed, with a nice deep red wine. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

4 poblano chiles
2 Hatch green chiles
3/4 lb of ground beef, preferably 90% lean
1 cup of walnuts, toasted in a dry, hot pan

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Salt
Half a finely diced red onion
3 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 cup blue cheese crumbles (my twist on flavoring)
1 cup Cotija cheese crumbles

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1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (use sparingly)
1 cup Mexican crema
1 cup pomegranate anils

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METHOD

Turn on the oven broiler. When super hot, rub olive oil on the six chile peppers, put them on a flat baking tray, and roast them about 10-15 minutes, turning every 5 minutes so the peppers blacken on all sides. Remove from the oven and seal in an airtight plastic bag, and cover with a warm, damp cloth. The steam will further cook the peppers and make the skins easier to peel (in theory.)

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While the peppers are roasting and cooling, cook the ground beef, seasoning with salt, a bit of black pepper and a bit of cinnamon. When cooked through, remove to a plate and cook the onions and the garlic with a bit more salt until soft and translucent. Add the cooked ground beef to the onions and stir to mix again. Let cool slightly, then add the blue cheese crumbles and the Cotija crumbles to the meat-onion mixture. Add a large tablespoon of the toasted walnuts to the mixture, and stir so that everything is well mixed.

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Take the cooked, skinned peppers and make a slit down the middle. Rub some oil, grapeseed or olive, onto your hands like you’re putting on hand lotion. This will keep the seeds from burning your hands as you remove the stem and seeds from the chiles. Rinse and let dry.

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Put the Mexican crema, half the toasted walnuts, the rest of the blue cheese, a spoonful of the Cotija cheese, salt, pepper and another small bit of cinnamon, into a blender and blend until you have a smooth, creamy sauce.

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Fill the roasted, peeled chiles with the meat-onion-walnut-cheese mixture. Cover with the velvety white cream sauce, and garnish with pomegranates and the rest of the toasted walnuts. They are truly delicious, very subtle flavoring from the cinnamon which lightly offsets the tangy cheese and heat of the chiles.

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Not to mention they are simply gorgeous to behold!

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“The chiles not only looked good, they were indeed delicious – never before had Tita done such a marvelous job with them. The platters of chiles proudly wore the colors of the flag: the green of the chiles, the white of the nut sauce, and the red of the pomegranates.”

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Sexy Sunday! Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

WARNING! Today’s post contains explicit sexual language and profanity. Isn’t that awesome?

Today marks the first collaboration I’ve done with a fellow blogger, and I can’t tell you how simultaneously excited and amused I am to be doing this. The genesis of Sexy Sunday came from a post that Nicole at The Bookworm Drinketh (and my blogging soul sister) when we got to talking on a blog comment thread and had the idea of doing something together. She’d blogged one of those wanna-be sequels to Pride and Prejudice, and I made a snarky comment about chick-lit and how the only sequel to Pride and Prejudice that I’d ever been able to stomach had sex -and I mean, LOTS – of sex, which was the only redeeming quality in said book. One thing led to another and we decided to collaborate on a monthly post titled “Sexy Sunday,”  in which we’d read a book infamous for its sex scenes; I would do a foodie post based on the book and she’d do a cocktail post based on the same book. And here we are.

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Nicole and I will be doing a Sexy Sunday collaboration the first Sunday of each month on a book that features some truly hot, bizarre, insane or downright weird sex…….so please, do join us in our monthly deviance 🙂 And once you’re done reading and commenting on today’s perverted post, head over to Nicole’s website and read her post on this book.

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So, Portnoy’s Complaint. I am no prude.  Ask any of my ex-boyfriends…..or actually, maybe you shouldn’t. OK, this book, as funny as it is in many parts, is just gross. I’m sure it has all this deep cultural, philosophical and psychological meaning. However, being that the main character Alexander Portnoy, though a grown man of 33, is also dealing with memories of his very Jewish-on-the-East-Coast teen years, in which he literally wanted to fuck every single thing in the world, it’s essentially well-written smut.

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Seriously. There’s a lot of mom/castration guilt referred to in this book as he does this massive information dump to his therapist (and really, can you get more East Coast Jewish than dumping all your twisted teenage masturbation sex fantasies to a shrink?) so you could argue that it’s uber-Freudian on one level. Personally, I see it as a grown man’s never-ending whine about how he wasn’t suckled enough as a baby and has turned this oral fixation outward and becomes – inwardly – a raging sex maniac. In short, it’s EVERY TEENAGE BOY’S STORY. I do wonder how this book was lionized by so many when I personally didn’t find it all that great, but perhaps if the majority of people who reviewed it were themselves men reliving their horny youth, it makes a twisted kind of sense.

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Roth died this past May, and though eulogized as the last of the great white literary lions along with Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, I think he – and yes, I’m going there – blew his literary wad with this book. However, I don’t like misogynists and the one thing that stands out in this book and his other works is his deep and abiding contempt for women, even as much as he sexually desires them. Well, many men see women like that, and it’s understandable if you’re looking at things from a Freudian viewpoint. That being said, it’s also incredibly self-indulgent as an adult to blame every single woman who comes through your life for the actions of one, whether it’s blaming women for how your mother treated you as a child; or making post-marital relationships pay the price for what one horrible ex-wife did while you were married. (And yes, RP, I’m talking to you.)

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As Woody Allen once proclaimed, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.” (Another East Coast Jewish male….coincidence? I think not.)  Anyway, in addition to the massive amounts of masturbation, self-love, onanism, jerking off, spanking the monkey and all the other euphemisms for getting oneself off,  there are also some interesting mentions of food in conjunction with Portnoy’s fetishes. Warning: this passage is quite explicit.

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At the Saturday afternoon movie I would leave my friends to go off to the candy machine – and wind up in a distant balcony seat, squirting my seed into the empty wrapper from a Mounds bar. On an outing of our family association, I once cored an apple, saw to my astonishment…….what it looked like, and ran off into the woods to fall upon the orifice of the fruit, pretending that the cool and mealy hole was actually between the legs of that mythical being who always called me Big Boy when she pleaded for what no girl in all recorded history had ever had. “Oh shove it in me, Big Boy,” cried the cored apple that I banged silly on that picnic. “Big Boy, Big boy, oh give me all you’ve got,” begged the empty milk bottle that I kept hidden………”Come, Big Boy, come,” screamed the maddened piece of liver that…….I bought one afternoon at a butcher shop and……….violated behind a billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson.

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See? I told you. Anyway, don’t you just crave some type of apple dessert after reading that passage? Me, too! Portnoy’s mother, in addition to her many other quirks, is constantly referred to as an amazing cook, baking a cake that tastes like a banana, so here goes with my foodie take, an apple and banana cake. I left off the cream frosting, though, as I’m sure you can understand why.

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INGREDIENTS
1 and 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 large apples, any type. I chose a Gala, a Red Delicious, and a Granny Smith.
3 large, ripe bananas, mashed
1 stick butter or 8 tablespoons or 1/2 cup, melted
3 eggs and 1 egg yolk, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans

METHOD
Peel two of the apples, core all three of them, and chop them. I left the Gala unpeeled, to have those pretty red bits peeking out.

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Heat the oven to 350F. Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and baking soda in a large bowl.

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In the mixing bowl of your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, gently mix together the vanilla, the eggs and egg yolk, and add the melted butter.

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Fold in the chopped apples and mashed bananas.

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One spoonful at a time, add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix together, using the paddle attachment, then add the pecans and mix again.

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Spray a 9 x 13 springform pan with baking spray and use a pan liner if you have one.  Pour in the batter and bake for 60-65 minutes. It’s a moist cake, so bake a bit longer to ensure the center is cooked completely through. The ol’ toothpick test works well here.

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Let cool.  My cake, unfortunately, did not cook completely through the center, so I had to cut out a large circular chunk, and being the creative person I am, I filled in the space with fresh raspberries. As I’ve said before, no one is ever going to suggest I quit my day job and decorate cakes full time. And I am ok with that. Serve plain, or if you must have cream with your apples a la Alexander Portnoy, go full-on phallic and spray some Redi-Whip on top. Go on, big boy!

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Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

An interesting microcosm of history, Salt essentially takes us back through the known history of the world, and analyzes how this humble little rock – the only rock humans can eat – and how it has had a transforming effect upon civilization. To be honest, however, there were large chunks of the book that weren’t terribly interesting, so I’d veer from jaw-aching boredom to total fascination. What I enjoyed the most were the snippets of specific cooking history – obviously – and the recipes utilizing salt as a preservative from ancient times.

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I am not normally a fan of non-fiction, and about the only non-fiction books I’ve read recently or blogged about are food memoirs. I read to escape our sometimes-mundane existence, so the last thing I want is to be bogged down in lengthy details of reality. This book, however, took me on a journey spanning the globe and timeline of the world, from ancient Rome, where Roman soldiers were actually paid in salt, hence the term “worth his salt” to modern-day Cajun country where shellfish are salted and preserved.

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Salting has been in use as a food preservative since time immemorial, which if you think about it, has a direct effect upon health, winning battles, and otherwise having a culture and society survive and flourish. It is believed to keep evil spirits away, and has been used in medicine to draw moisture and infection out of wounds.

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The science of salt is dull, but not being a scientist or a linear thinker, that’s just me. I find salt interesting insofar as it spices up food, acts as a cleaning agent for my cast iron pans, and I also use it sprinkled across all of my doors and windows in my home to keep out negative energy and evil. Laugh if you want, but for me, it works.

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Some of the more fascinating tidbits I learned from this book include: the fact that Gandhi’s famous march against the British was in protest of salt restrictions; one of the reasons why George Washington fought against the British was against salt shortages; that flamingos get their brilliant pink hue from salt; that salt in the oceans is what keeps our fish alive; that anchovies are the basis for Worchestershire sauce; and that without salt, we wouldn’t have things like soy sauce, cheese, preserved anchovies or preserved walnuts. Which would seriously suck, because not only are cheese, walnuts and anchovies among my favorite foods ever, but they also make up the base of today’s gastro-porn recipe, based on these two passages from the book.

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Since the time of ancient Greece, anchovies have been the most praised salted fish of the Mediterranean, and since the Middle Ages those of Colliore have been regarded as the best salted anchovies in the world.

By the seventeenth century, the English had discovered that salted anchovies would melt into a sauce. This practice may have existed centuries earlier on the continent, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, anchovy sauces became extremely popular.

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Not having been raised to eat anchovies, I didn’t try them until adulthood when I first made pasta alla puttanesca. I was hooked on these little salty nuggets of flavor from that day on. And for all those people who freak out over anchovies in their food, calm the f*ck down already. You can’t even taste the fish, it just gives a lovely, salty flavor. So get out of your comfort zone and eat an anchovy! Or make this recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup olive oil
6-7 garlic cloves
8 anchovy fillets
1 lb. spinach spaghetti (or whatever type you like)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
Fresh ground black pepper
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese

METHOD
Boil your pasta water, salt it, and put in the pasta. Cook until al dente, roughly 7 minutes but try it first. Al dente texture varies depending on the type of pasta you use.

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Slice the garlic cloves into thin slivers.

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Chop the walnuts and toast them in a dry non-stick pan until they brown and you can smell their nutty scent. Set aside.

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In the same pan, add olive oil and saute the garlic cloves for up to 10 minutes.

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Chop the anchovies and add them to the garlic and oil. Cook on medium low until they begin to melt and break down.

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Drain the pasta and reserve one cupful of the cooking water.

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Add the cooled walnuts and some of the chopped parsley to the anchovies and garlic, and add in a bit of the pasta water, which helps the sauce thicken and amalgamate, due to the starches released during boiling.

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Grate in the Pecorino Romano cheese, add in the lemon juice, stir, then take a tongful (yes, that’s a word, I just invented it) of pasta and add it to the sauce in the pan, doing that cool twirly motion that all the best Italian chefs make look so very easy.

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Cook another couple of minutes, just to make sure the cheese melts, then serve. WOW! The anchovy, lemon, parsley, walnuts and cheese are such an amazing combination. Please try this, if only to challenge your preconceived notions about anchovies.

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Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Though I disliked the movie, which was absolutely nothing like the book (and not in a good way,) Under the Tuscan Sun is so beautifully written that you almost feel as though you’re walking through sunlit fields of sunflowers in the countryside surrounding Cortona. Normally, I don’t go for these types of memoirs, simply because the majority of them – and I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love – are such self-absorbed, whinily written, so-called journeys of discovery by wealthy, pampered, spoiled women who don’t appreciate what they have. Frances Mayes’ gorgeous tale of her life in the stunning countryside of Tuscany, however, is truly a voyage of discovery.

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The author is a teacher who, with her husband, buys a rundown villa in the town of Cortona. They fix it up when they return each summer, and it becomes not just a second home, but a true oasis for them both. They become friends with the natives of Cortona, and eventually truly become citizens of this magical little town tucked into the hillsides of Tuscany.

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I’ve actually visited Cortona and found it as beautiful as any place in Italy. Pitched roofs, pigeons, a historic town square, the ubiquitous flowers and trees that scream Italy, cornerside bars and cafes, yellow-striped canopies that wave in the breeze………Cortona is the quintessential small Italian town that charms and seduces. Below is a photo I took in that wonderful town. It is a place that is filled with happy memories, not to mention it had one of the only hotels that still had on the heating during that chilly late spring.

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The house Frances buys in Cortona is called Bramasole. Isn’t that just gorgeous? It means “yearning for the sun.” I think that is all of us, no matter where we are. We are all yearning for the warmth and comfort of the sunshine, especially in the depths of winter. And of course, one of the things she does in her new house is cook. She cooks up a storm, utilizing the seasonal bounty that is Italy in the summer and winter, and her cooking echoes the ongoing work she and her husband do to the house. She learns to use the raw materials to enhance the beautiful life in Italy they have created together, just as they have created this gorgeous oasis of a home in a country not theirs by birth, but by love.

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I chose her recipe for sage pesto with basil, because I needed to use up some of my homegrown basil, and also because I just adore a good pesto and hadn’t had any in awhile. It is so nice to have around, to spread on toast or atop a piece of grilled meat, or  with roasted vegetables. And it is so simple, and yet so gratifying to make! Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the sage pesto:
1 cup basil leaves
1 cup sage leaves
1 cup walnuts
5 cloves garlic
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Using a food processor or a small food chopper, finely chop the sage, basil, and garlic until very finely chopped.

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Add the walnuts and pulse again until everything is finely chopped into an almost paste-like texture.  Add the olive oil gradually, in a thin stream, pulsing all the while.

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Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper here if necessary. Add in the lemon juice and sprinkle in the Parmesan and pulse again until the sauce thickens. Taste again and season as needed. Set aside.

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I served it atop some nicely grilled pork chops and it was sublime!

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Even better as leftovers the next day, as you can see.

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One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights) as retold by Hanan al-Shaykh

I don’t know about you, but when I think of One Thousand and One Nights, or as it’s more commonly known, The Arabian Nights, what comes to mind are exotic tents in the desert surrounded by turbaned thieves, camels with tasseled saddles, beautiful dancing girls draped in veils in emerald green, ruby red, and turquoise blue, exotic dishes garnished with seeds and nuts and herbs, and at the center of it all, the Pasha himself, waiting to be appeased with stories.

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Genies in bottles granting wishes, Sinbad the Sailor on the high seas battling monsters, flying carpets, Aladdin and his magical lamp, Ali Baba and his crew of 40 thieves, viziers and caliphs, all are told over a series of – yes, you guessed it – 1,001 nights when Scheherazade tells her tales to avoid being killed by her husband. The idea is that he will want to know what happens next, so he won’t kill her. Their story is the framing tale that supports the other tales, some of which have stories within stories within stories.

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I hadn’t realized that Sinbad, Aladdin, Ali Baba, and others, were originally from this book, which was such a pleasure to read. The book is divided into segments for each night that Scheherazade weaves her literary magic, by story. However, I warn you that these stories are not for children, so don’t be expecting the Disney version of Aladdin, with singing monkeys and a blue genie. These tales are violent, somewhat misogynistic, often brutal and cruel, and also highly erotic……which makes sense as Scheherazade is one of many harem wives to the Pasha.

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One of the more entertaining stories is that of the Two Viziers, in which the character Badr-al-Din is supposed to have cooked a pomegranate dish for the royal household, and it is not up to par.

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The following night Shahrazad said: It is related, O King, that Ja’far said to the caliph: Badr al-Din said, “Because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper, you have beaten me, smashed my dishes, and ruined my shop, all because the pomegranate dish lacked pepper!”

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Goodness, the poor man! I’ve occasionally screwed up a dish that I was cooking for others, but luckily no one has beaten me for it……yet.  🙂  Anyway, a pomegranate dish with pepper sounded both exotic and like a culinary challenge, so I did some research and found a traditional Middle Easter recipe called fesenjan, which is spicy chicken baked in a pomegranate sauce. Being that this is the season of pomegranates, and with my love of those tasty little cluckers, and in honor of this classic book, I made pomegranate chicken. And yes, I added plenty of pepper!

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INGREDIENTS
12 chicken thighs, skin on
1 large onion, diced
6 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon dried red chili flakes
1/2 cup pomegranate juice
2 cups walnuts
1 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon paste
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup pomegranate anils
Fresh thyme

METHOD
First, make the pomegranate syrup. Pour the pomegranate juice into a small sauce pan, bring to a boil, and cook about 30-45 minutes, until it thickens into a syrup. Add a bit of salt and lime juice and allow to cool.

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Heat the oven to 325F.

In a flat pan, toast the walnuts until just brown and giving off that toasty, nutty scent. Remove from heat and roughly chop into smaller pieces. Set aside.

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In a separate pan, saute the chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until soft and translucent.

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Add the turmeric, cinnamon, and chili flakes and cook another 5 minutes. Remove from the pan.

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Salt and pepper the chicken thighs, and brown them about 7 minutes on each side. You may need to brown them in batches. Don’t crowd them into the pan or they won’t brown properly.

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Put half the onion-garlic mixture into a large Dutch oven, place the browned chicken thighs on top, then put the remainder of the onion on top of the chicken, and dot with the chicken bouillon paste.

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Pour over the pomegranate molasses, and then add the chicken stock.

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Cover the dish and bake for an hour, checking to make sure it isn’t dry. If it is, add a bit more chicken stock. Allow to cool and serve over any rice of your choice – I used Japanese black rice – and garnish with pomegranate anils and green thyme sprigs. It is so pretty that you almost don’t want to eat it………almost.

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The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

This has got to be one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read some weird stuff in my life. I love books about libraries, about other books, about the sheer pleasure of learning and knowledge and reading. So when I saw the title of this book, The Library at Mount Char, I had to buy it. Little did I know what I was in for.

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Brutal and amazingly intelligent are the best descriptors. I’d say it’s somewhere along the lines of American Gods with a dash of The Name of the Rose and with a twist of American Psycho, and maybe some of The Magicians thrown in for good measure. Yes, there’s a library and yes, there are gods on this earth and yes, there are some majorly psychotic characters in this book. Carolyn is our protagonist and tells the story of her and her siblings who are taken by their “Father,” who is what we’d consider God, to study. They study for years in the Library and cannot study outside of their own subjects of expertise. Then, Father goes missing and the kids are on their own, wreaking havoc, killing, having insane sex, bringing the dead back to life, communicating with animals. And there are some bad-ass lions. But there is method to the insanity that is this book.

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It’s pretty rough in some places, I’ll warn you now. If death and dismemberment, human sacrifice, and killing and reanimating bother you, this book isn’t for you. But if you have a strong stomach, love black humor and esoteric knowledge and want to read something totally unique and bizarre that makes you think and that will stay with you long after you’ve finished, this might be your book. Just balance it out with some Danielle Steel or a nice Disney flick afterward.

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At one juncture, after Father has done his vanishing act, Carolyn and her wholly bizarre siblings find themselves living with Mrs. McGillicutty, in one of the funnier and more bizarre scenes in the book. Mrs. McGillicutty is as sweet and wholesome and clueless as they come…….and she bakes some damn good brownies.

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“Would you like a brownie?” Mrs. McGillicutty asked. Steve opened his mouth to say No, thanks, but what came out was “Don’t mind if I do!” Three weeks of jail time had left him with an appetite. Plus, the brownies were ridiculously good. Mrs. McGillicutty brought him some milk as well. When he was done, he turned to Carolyn. “I don’t suppose you’ve got a cigarette?”

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I hadn’t baked any desserts since I moved, and working in this new kitchen is still quite a thrill. This is the method I used, based on this recipe from Gimme Delicious, one of my fave recipes sites, but of course, with my usual flavoring tweaks and in this case, I omitted the chocolate ganache. These brownies are to die for!

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INGREDIENTS
3/4 cup flour
3 eggs and 1 egg yolk
1 cup Ghirardelli chocolate chips, 60% cocoa solids or higher
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup walnuts
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 350F and lightly oil or butter a glass baking pan. Mix together the flour, salt, and baking powder in a bowl.

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Melt the butter and chocolate chips together in another large bowl. Add in the vanilla and the walnuts and stir together.

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Add the sugar to the chocolate mixture, then whisk in the eggs one at a time. Add the yolk last.

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Add the flour mixture to the chocolate and sugar mixture, stir again well, and pour into your oiled baking pan. Bake for 25 minutes, checking to make sure you don’t overbake the brownies, which dries them out. And who wants a dry brownie, I ask you?

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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Thanks to JG for the photography.

Set in a slightly alternate universe, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been touted as the Harry Potter for adults. It’s far more than that, however. Set in England during the Napoleonic wars, its a lengthy book that delves deeply into the mythology of Faerie.

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One thing that has always stood out to me is the lack of a true mythology in England. There are the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but that’s not an origin myth, nor are there gods and goddesses in British lore. Faeries and other interesting creatures abound but there is no real etymology, similar to the ancient Egyptians or Mesopotamians or Aztecs. Just something to ponder while you’re cooking.

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Anyway, back to the book. I enjoyed it, it though it did take me a few tries to really get into it. Not because the story wasn’t fascinating, but because of THOSE DAMN FOOTNOTES! I loathe and despise footnotes. Probably left over from my time in graduate school,  because the amount of books I had to read with footnotes, and all the papers I had to write with footnotes literally, at times, drove me to drink! Not that it takes much, truth be told.

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In a nutshell, Mr. Norrell is a quiet, somewhat hermited English gentleman who has spent most of his life amassing the world’s biggest library on magical books. When he is approached by a local guild of magical theorists, he demonstrates his practical magical ability by bringing the stone statues on the local church to life. He is thus brought to London to become the king’s magical advisor, and it’s there that he encounters Jonathan Strange, a young gadabout who is looking for a career so that his love, Arabella, will finally marry him. He takes up the study of magic from Mr. Norrell, becoming far more adept at the magical arts than anyone would have ever dreamed.

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There are intertwining stories involving The Raven King, the magician Vinculus, and Lady Pole and her subsequent enchantment when she is ostensibly brought back to life by Mr. Norrell. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out Mr. Norrell is not really much of a magician at all, as his skills and spells are all given to him by The Gentleman With Hair Like Thistledown. The story alternates between the England of the day, and Faerieland of the night, where people dance and dance until daylight, and return to their awakened selves still under the influence of Faerie.

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Being England, there was much mention of traditional British food such as roast beef, gravy, scones, Yorkshire puddings, and other such fare. Having never had fresh beetroot and a hatred of the disgusting canned stuff I had to eat as a child, this passage caught my attention.

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He wore a mourning ring on the fourth finger of his left hand with a thin strand of brown hair inside it and Sir Walter noticed that he continually touched it and turned it on his finger. They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.

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Beef and beet root sounded unusual, and after recently coming across several references to roasted beets in the NY Times Cooking section, doable. And if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you’ll be familiar with my love for cheese. Cheese is God. Next to wine and coffee, that is.  So I thought I’d combine steak, roasted beets, and blue cheese.

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I marinate my meat in olive oil, red wine, lemon juice, Worchestershire sauce, roasted garlic cloves, and salt and pepper. The golden rule of grilling is oil the meat, not the grill, or everything will smoke like hell. And make sure the meat is at room temperature before grilling. Otherwise, just order pizza and call it a day.

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This is the method that worked for me, based loosely on this lovely recipe at Olivia’s Cuisine, but of course, with my own added twists. Gotta be unique, you know!

INGREDIENTS
1 large steak, about 1 inch thick, marinated using the method above
3 beets
1 large sweet potato
1 cup of walnuts
5 cups fresh spinach
1 cup blue cheese crumbles
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
5-6 roasted garlic cloves (use from the steak marinade)
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and heat an oiled, stovetop, ridged grill pan. Yes, you can multitask!

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Slice the sweet potato into thick pieces.

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Then slice the beets. I highly advise wearing an apron and possibly kitchen gloves for this part. And don’t wear white, unless you want to look like Lady Macbeth.

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Lay the potato and the beets on a parchment-paper covered baking tray, and pour over some olive oil. Roast for 45 minutes, checking to make sure they don’t burn.

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While the veg are roasting, cook the steak on the grill for 8 minutes total, flipping every minute so that it cooks evenly, and gets those beautiful grill mark stripes. Let cool, then slice into similarly sized chunks as the beet and potato.

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In a dry, nonstick pan, toast the walnuts until just brown.

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Remove the potato and beets from the oven and allow to cool. Sprinkle over some sea salt, and in a large bowl, combine with the spinach, the steak slices,  and the toasted walnuts. Toss together well.

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Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the steak pan juices and the garlic cloves from the marinade, and the blue cheese, in a blender or food processor, to make a dressing. Add a bit of salt and pepper, and pour over the salad.

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It’s DAMN delicious! Fantastic with a strong red wine, the flavors are amazing and the roasted beets are amazing, nutty and sweet and perfectly textured.

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Thanks to JG for the photography.

I first heard about The Help when the movie, with Octavia Spencer and Cicely Tyson came out, and wanted to read the book first. The storyline, in a nutshell, is the story of two African-American maids – Aibileen and Minny in 1960s Mississippi – and how the lives they lead, complete with racism, inequality, and brutality, are told by Skeeter, a white girl who has just returned home after finishing college and wants to be a writer.

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She is compelled to write about the inequal treatment of black servants after her Junior League starts an initiative to install separate toilets in every house in Jackson, for the sole purpose of keeping their colored servants from using their bathrooms. Yes, this stuff happened, and far, far worse.

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As much as I loved the kindness and wisdom of Aibileen, my favorite of all the characters was Minny. She was hilarious, and had a mouth on her that could cut! I loved the fact that, even in the segregated, rural, racist South when whites had so much power over African-Americans that sometimes literally meant life and death, Minny still stood up for herself and told her hateful employers exactly what she thought of them. Hah! Of course, that meant she had been fired from all of those jobs, too. Her initial relationship with Celia Foote was very odd and funny, yet very transformational as well, as they develop an odd sort of friendship.

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It’s so odd to think that this entire class of wealthy white women, so focused on segregating their maids and yet trusting them to care for and bring up their children, cook their food, clean their houses, and wash their dirty laundry – literally and figuratively. There is such inequality in any type of employer/employee relationship as it is. Can you imagine the dynamics of that relationship compounded by racial inequality?

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I’ve read other opinions on this book, and the main issue seems to be two-fold: 1) that Stockett is promoting racial stereotypes in her portrayals of the maids, and 2) that for all her willingness to expose the ugly racial reality of that time, she still soft-pedals it. I don’t know that I agree with that, simply because she wrote what she experienced and remembered and tried to recreate it in the voices of these wonderful maids. Maybe it wasn’t the voices with which they would have told their stories, and perhaps others of the same background and experiences would have told it differently. That’s as it should be, but it shouldn’t devalue this book, either.

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Being a story of domestic goings-on as much as a treatise on racial inequality, the book abounds with mentions of so much delicious food that it was hard to choose one. Minny’s caramel cakes, fried chicken, and of course, the infamous chocolate pie. Oh poop! But early in the book, one scene sets the tone for the type of behavior these poor maids had to deal with, when Aibileen is serving a lunch of deviled eggs, ham sandwiches, and something called a congealed salad at Mrs. Leefolt’s house, and the gossip abounds about Celia Foote, who is considered “white trash” by these supposed pillars of the community.

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I spoon out the congealed salad and the ham sandwiches, can’t help but listen to them chatter. Only three things them ladies talk about: they kids, they clothes, and they friends. I hear the word Kennedy and I know they ain’t discussing no politic.

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A congealed salad is a Southern staple at lunch, dinner or picnics. It’s essentially a Jello salad, that can be made either savory or sweet. with marshmallows, nuts, fruit, celery (!), and cream cheese. I wanted to try and recreate it, so this is my take on that Southern classic, lime congealed salad. This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe at Never Enough Thyme. I did use walnuts instead of pecan, and I left out the celery, because yuck.

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INGREDIENTS
1 3-oz. packet of lime Jell-o
1 8-oz. bar of cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups boiling hot water
1 8-oz. can crushed pineapple, drained
1/2 cup walnuts
2 cups miniature marshmallows

METHOD
Mix together in your most awesome Kitchen Aid the cream cheese and the lime Jell-o. That’s a lurid green, isn’t it?2017-03-26 10.39.46_resized.jpg

Reduce the mixer speed and add a little bit of the hot water. The idea is to loosen up the mixture.

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Add in the rest of the hot water and mix well to make sure the cheese, Jell-o and water are completely combined.

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Pour into a pan and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

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Remove from the fridge, and stir in the marshmallows, pineapple and walnuts. Put back in the refrigerator for another couple of hours. You might check on it once and stir a few times, as the marshmallows tend to sink and you want them incorporated through the salad.2017-03-26 14.45.21_resized.jpg

Remove one last time, and serve garnished with lime slices and whipped cream. To go full-on Southern, serve the lime congealed salad with fried chicken and deviled eggs.

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