Monday, October 5, 2015

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "The Visitant" by Megan Chance, Served with Creamy Polenta with Parmesan, Pecorino, & Buttery Pine Nuts

October is a wonderful month for reading atmospheric Gothic tales, so I am excited to be a stop on the TLC Book Tour for The Visitant: A Venetian Ghost Story by Megan Chance. Along with my review of this novel is a recipe for a creamy Polenta with Parmesan, Pecorino & Pine Nuts, inspired by the book.

Publisher's Blurb:

The shadows of Venice have long inspired writers—from Henry James and Thomas Mann to Daphne DuMaurier and Ian McEwan. Now, its Megan Chance’s turn, as the acclaimed novelist takes readers through the alleys and canals of this ageless and mysterious city in her compelling new book, The Visitant: A Venetian Ghost Story (Lake Union Publishing; September 22, 2015). Part haunted tale, part love story, part mystery, this riveting historical novel explores the truth behind a terrifying reality, as a young American woman, immersed in a strange foreign culture, encounters a world beyond her wildest imaginings. Buried secrets of a tragic past converge, threatening to destroy not just her hopes of redemption, but her very life.

Set in 1884, The Visitant paints an unforgettable portrait of a decaying city and the secrets that lurk in its dark, crumbling corners. Elena Spira has arrived there to take up the duties of nurse to a young epileptic man who has descended to the depths both physically and psychologically. Samuel Farber wants none of Elena’s help as he wallows in a laudanum-triggered haze of hallucinations. Samuel speaks of visits from a spirit, seemingly wild claims that Elena first rejects as drug-fueled. But, the truth is far more sinister. When Samuel’s best friend and host, Nero Basilio, arrives, Elena finds herself drawn to this charming man as he shows her the hidden delights of Venice. But there are dark forces at play—forces that Elena cannot begin to comprehend. Casa Basilio possesses a tragic history, and a ghost whose presence may be driving Samuel to madness.

Paperback: 339 pages
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (September 22, 2015)

My Review:

The Visitant is the first book by Megan Chance that I have read and it likely won't be my last. I like the way she crafted the story and how clearly she brought 1884 Venice to life. From her words you can see the crumbling splendor of Ca' Basilio, feel the cold that permeates the rooms, and smell the damp mold on the walls and fetid canal water, mixed with with the faint scent of cedar, iris and vanilla that clings to Laura's room. Elena is appealing and likable--it is easy to feel sympathy for her and the grave mistake she made that led her to her role as Samuel's nurse, as well as her need to be successful in returning him to health and his family in order to save her own. I did find that I preferred the ghost story to the romance. Both Nero and Samuel seemed weak and not worth 'redeeming' to be a long-term match for Elena, and I felt Elena fell a bit too fast for Nero. I enjoyed the slow build up of the story and the way the secrets of Ca' Basilo and its occupants were revealed--parts were predictable but there were some twists and turns that had me second-guessing what I thought was going to happen. There is a pleasantly creepy vibe to the story that makes it a good choice for a cool October night.

Author Notes: Megan Chance is a critically acclaimed, award-winning author of historical fiction, including Inamorata, Bone River, and City of Ash. Her novels have been chosen for the Borders Original Voices and Book Sense programs. A former television news photographer and graduate of Western Washington University, Chance lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two daughters. 

You can connect with Megan Chance on her Website, Facebook, or Twitter

Food Inspiration: It's Italy so there is food in this ghost story. The larder of Ca' Basilio is well-stocked with cornmeal, beans, vinegar, flour, barrels of fermenting anchovy, kegs of wine, and ropes of garlic and drying herbs. In the kitchen, there is bread and fruit, roasted pumpkin, pork, fish, and bowls of sguassetto--a rich and spicy stew. There is wine of course, and tea with nougat and a plate of sugar-dusted fritters. The market stands in The Rialto have the crab soup man, fruit and vegetable sellers with stalls piled high with produce, baskets of wriggling fish, and the aroma of sausage, garlic and onions mingling in the air. There was a café meal of fried minnows and sardines in a "shiny sauce that smelled of vinegar, studded with raisins" along with a jug of wine. 

I chose a breakfast of polenta as the inspiration for my dish representing this book--made even better by its topping of roasted chestnuts.

"Nero cut the chestnut into pieces, dropping them into my bowl."Try it with this." ...

Tentatively, I took a bite. The polenta was warm and delicious, salty with cheese, and the chestnuts were sweet and nutty, a rich, deep flavor. It was one of the best things I'd ever tasted, and I told him so."   
-The Visitant, Megan Chance

I see chestnuts occasionally in the stores here, but usually only at Christmas time so I decided to replace them with a topping of buttery pine nuts. A rich and decadent topping for the creamy and cheesy polenta.

Creamy Polenta with Parmesan, Pecorino, & Buttery Pine Nuts
By Deb, Kahakai Kitchen, with Polenta Inspiration from Giada
(Serves 4 or More) ;-)

4 cups water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups polenta
1 tsp dried thyme
1 cup whole milk
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup grated Pecorino cheese
salt and black pepper to taste
squeeze or two of lemon juice
Buttery Pine Nuts to serve--see recipe below

In a large, heavy saucepan, bring the water and salt to a boil. While briskly whisking, gradually add in the polenta. Once polenta is added, reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring often, until the mixture thickens and cornmeal is creamy and tender--about 10 to 15 minutes.    

Add the milk, butter, and cheese and stir until the mixture is smooth and the butter and cheese have melted. Add a squeeze or two of lemon to brighten and alt and black pepper to taste. Place polenta in a serving bowl and top with the buttery pine nuts.


Buttery Pine Nuts
Inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup raw pine nuts
Place the butter and olive oil in a small frying pan over medium heat. Once mixture is hot, add the pine nuts and toss them in the pan until golden--about 2 minutes. Watch them closely--they will begin to brown quickly and can easily burn. Set aside.

Notes/Results: I sometimes have texture issues with foods like polenta or grits, cream of wheat and even oatmeal--but when you have butter, cheese and a decadent nutty topping, I can't help but like it. This polenta had great flavor with the two cheeses, the thyme, black pepper, and a couple of squeezes of lemon I added to brighten things up. Thick and creamy, I ate it for lunch but I think it would be an excellent warming breakfast dish as well. The pine nuts added great texture and a brown butter flavor that was perfect. I would happily make it again.

Note: A review copy of "The Visitant" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.


Saturday, October 3, 2015

Middle Eastern Couscous with Saffron, Crispy Onion-Crusted Mahi Mahi, and My Top Ten Favorite Jacques Pépin Recipes

This is our last week cooking with Jacques Pépin at I Heart Cooking Clubs--at least on a weekly basis. I'm sending him off with two recipes from his More Fast Food My Way; Middle Eastern Couscous and a Crispy Onion-Crusted Mahi Mahi.  

I first made and posted the couscous back in September 2008 and I have made it a few times since, loving the color, aroma, and flavor from the saffron. I like it as a side dish for fish and had some local mahi mahi to use up this weekend. I liked the idea of crumbing the mahi with pulverized canned or packaged french-fried onions before pan-frying it, and took that preparation from Jacques's Onion-Crusted Sole with Anchovy Butter.

It's always fun to go back and remember the recipes I have cooked with the current IHCC chef and choose the ones that stand out as my favorites. I am afraid that I did not do Jacques Pépin justice this past six months in quantity of recipes. Much of the time was  tough personally for me, I took a blogging break, and I was not in the mood to spend much time in the kitchen so I picked mostly quick and easy dishes to make. I thought I would only be able to come up with my top five recipes, but actually when I went back and looked, I had ten recipes that I really liked. Most of these are pretty simple to make and all had a masterful combination of flavors and ingredients that I have come to associate with Chef Pépin.

My Top Ten Favorite Jacques Pépin Recipes

Middle Eastern Couscous with Saffron
Adapted From Jacques Pépin: More Fast Food My Way
(Serves 4)

2 Tbsp good olive oil
2/3 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
About 1 tsp crushed saffron pistils
1 cup Israeli couscous
1 1/2 cups chicken stock (homemade or low-salt prepared) (I used veggie stock)
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
4 sprigs fresh tarragon or parsley for garnish (I used fresh cilantro)

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over high heat and add the onion, pumpkin seeds and saffron. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then add the couscous and mix well. 

Add the chicken stock, salt and pepper, mix well, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to very low, cover, and cook for 10 minutes. Uncover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes longer to dry the grains and make them fluffy. 

Serve garnished with the herb sprigs.


Onion-Crusted Mahi Mahi
Adapted From Jacques Pépin: More Fast Food My Way
(Makes 4 Servings)

2 large eggs
4 mahi mahi fillets (about 6 oz each), or fish of your choice
1/2 tsp salt
6-oz french-fried onions (I used garlic black pepper onions)
3 Tbsp canola or peanut oil
1 lemon, quartered

Beat the eggs in a shallow bowl until smooth and well combined. Pat the fish fillets with paper towels to dry them thoroughly. Sprinkle both sides with salt. Put the fried onions in a food processor and process until smooth and powdery. Transfer the onion mixture to a large plate. 

Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet. Dip the fish fillets in the eggs and then into the powdered onion. Cook on each side, until well-browned and just barley cooked in the center (about 2-3 minutes per side depending on the thickness of your fish), turning carefully with a large spatula. Serve with lemon.  

Notes/Results: The couscous remains one of my go-to side dishes. It is quick and easy to make but looks elegant, exotic, and pretty on the plate. The onion coating on the mahi mahi added so much flavor (I used a package of garlic and black pepper fried onions) and the fish was moist and tender. I didn't make the anchovy butter that accompanied the fish recipe this time as I felt the couscous and fish pairing didn't need it, but I will next time. An easy dinner and a great way to end six months with Chef Pépin.

I am linking this post up at IHCC where you can see how everyone said "Au Revoir Chef
Pépin!" by checking out the picture links on the post. 

We will be spending the next six months at I Heart Cooking Clubs exploring healthy and delicious recipes with cookbook author, registered dietitian, and healthy cooking expert, Ellie Krieger--so come join us!


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "A Line of Blood" by Ben McPherson, Served with a Boozy Whiskey Affogato

I'm happy to be a stop on the TLC Book Tour for A Line of Blood by Ben McPherson, a darkly suspenseful mystery/thriller. The focus of this book is a family that looks relatively normal from the outside but is actually full of secrets and issues. Yep, below the surface this family is pretty much a hot mess, so accompanying my review is a bit of a cold mess--a scrumptious and boozy Whiskey Affogato, inspired by my reading.

Publisher's Blurb:

Whose secrets cut deeper?
Your family’s.

Whose secrets do you fear?
Your neighbor’s.

Whose secrets can kill?
Your own.

For Alex Mercer, his wife, Millicent, and their precocious eleven-year-old son, Max, are everything—his little tribe that makes him feel all’s right with the world. But when he and Max find their enigmatic next-door neighbor dead in his apartment, their lives are suddenly and irrevocably changed. The police begin an extremely methodical investigation, and Alex becomes increasingly impatient for them to finish. After all, it was so clearly a suicide.

As new information is uncovered, troubling questions arise—questions that begin to throw suspicion on Alex, Millicent, and even Max. Each of them has secrets it seems. And each has something to hide.

With the walls of their perfect little world closing in on them day after day, husband, wife, and son must decide how far they’ll go to protect themselves—and their family—from investigators carefully watching their every move . . . waiting for one of them to make a mistake.

A Line of Blood explores what it means to be a family—the ties that bind us, and the lies that can destroy us if we’re not careful. Highly provocative, intensely twisty and suspenseful, this novel will have you wondering if one of them is guilty—or if all of them are—and will keep you on edge until its shocking final pages.

You will never look at your loved ones the same way again. . . 
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: William Morrow (September 29, 2015) 

My Review:

The Mercer family, Scottish Alex, his American wife Millicent, and their eleven-year-old son Max live fairly comfortably in the North London neighborhood of Finsbury Park (which the locals refer to as "Crappy"--due to the dodgy parts). One evening Alex and Max climb into the neighbor's yard looking for Foxxa, their cat, and end up following her into their neighbor's house where they discover him--very dead--in his bathtub. The body is on lurid display and Alex does not react fast enough to prevent Max from seeing it--something that is a common thread in the book as Max constantly sees, hears, and is told far too much for his young years. What looks like a suicide turns into a murder investigation, with Alex at the top of the suspect list. As the police investigation continues, secrets surface, including an especially damaging one about the relationship between the neighbor and Millicent. Soon it's more than Alex under suspicion and his marriage and life keep unraveling with each turn of the page.

This is one of those books that a lengthy story explanation would spoil some of the intricate twists and turns of the plot so I am not going to go into a lot of detail. It's best just to say that if you like psychological thrillers with a dose of dark family drama you will want to read A Line of Blood. I found myself engrossed in the story from the start and full of tension while reading it. Part of the tension came from the storytelling--McPherson does an amazing job of building the drama, reeling me in, convincing me I had it figured out, then continuously casting lines out in other directions and making me doubt my conclusions.
The story is told from Alex's point of view and it's not clear how reliable he is and so it is easy to cast suspicion on everyone. The generally creepy vibe that surrounds this family makes it possible to believe that any one of them could be involved in their neighbor's death. The other area of tension was from the characters themselves--no one was really likable for various reasons and I really wanted to smack Alex and Millicent for their lack of maturity and parenting skills. They have an eleven-year-old son that they seem to treat partially as a peer and partially as an afterthought. They live in a little house where they can hear almost everything going on within their house, yard, and nearby neighbors' houses, yet the conversations, fights, and actions they take seem oblivious to the fact that anyone can hear them--especially their son. Any nap or nighttime sleep seemed to be fair game for all manner of inappropriateness to come out. In addition to what Max might have witnessed, as the marriage implodes Alex in particular shares too many details with his son, and the fact that Max is a master manipulator, sets up even more issues and more family breakdown. McPherson manages to keep the dysfunction and craziness to just this side of reality though, so even if these aren't characters you know (or want to know), they still ring true. Complex and off-kilter, A Line of Blood kept me up past my bedtime and made my blood pressure elevate.

Author Notes:  Ben McPherson is a television producer, director, and writer and for more than ten years worked for the BBC, among other outlets. He is currently a columnist for Aftenposten, Norway’s leading quality daily, and lives in Oslo with his wife and two children.

Find Ben on Twitter and Facebook.

For my book-inspired dish, it seemed like most of the food mentions were simple meals,  breakfasts, and beverages--particularly coffee and alcohol. I decided to combine those two ingredients with the ice cream, chocolate, and milkshakes Max liked and make a Boozy Whiskey Affogato. An 'adults only' drink/dessert, but somehow I imagine Max would have been given some--or found a way to get it himself. ;-)

Whiskey seemed to be in constant supply in the story. It would have likely been an Irish whiskey in the Mercer household, but since I had good Kentucky bourbon/whiskey on hand, that's what I used. 

An affogato (Italian for 'drowned') is a coffee dessert, usually consisting of a scoop of gelato or ice cream topped with a shot of hot espresso and sometimes a shot of liqueur. The espresso melts the ice cream into a creamy and delicious spoonable or drinkable mess. It really doesn't require a 'recipe' but this is what I did below. ;-)

Whiskey Affogato
By Deb, Kahakai Kitchen

For each affogato:

about 3/4 cup scoop of your favorite gelato or ice cream (vanilla, chocolate, coffee...)
1 oz whiskey or alcohol of choice
2 oz hot brewed espresso or strongly brewed coffee
shaved dark chocolate for garnish

Scoop ice cream into cup or glass. Pour whiskey on ice cream, then top with the hot espresso and sprinkle with chocolate shavings. Serve immediately.

Notes/Results: All of the important food groups are represented here: ice cream, coffee, alcohol, and chocolate-so what's not to like?! I have never been a huge whiskey flavor fan but it works well with the coffee and ice cream--very much like an Irish coffee only better. You can sub in any alcohol or liqueur you like--spiced rum, Kahlua, Frangelico, Amaretto... Prepping the glasses of ice cream ahead of time and letting the ice cream scoops get very frozen will make it melt slower but make sure your espresso/coffee is made at the last minute so it is very hot and very fresh. Decadent, messy and a bit dangerous--a pretty perfect dessert. ;-) 

Note: A review copy of "A Line of Blood" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"That's a Good Life Smörgå"--Swedish Smoked Fish Sandwich with Pickled Cucumbers for Cook The Books: "Yes, Chef" by Marcus Samuelsson

As much as I love foodie fiction, there is something about hearing the story of a well-known and respected chef and learning how they found success that completely captures my interest. With Yes, Chef, a memoir by Marcus Samuelsson, our Cook The Books August/September pick (hosted by Rachel, The Crispy Cook), the journey is particularly fascinating. Born in Ethiopia and ill with the tuberculosis his young mother succumbed to, young Marcus was brought back to health, adopted by a loving Swedish family and raised in Sweden. He trained in Europe, traveled the world expanding his palate, and eventually found his place in the New York food scene. Yes, Chef is an absorbing, honest, and not always flattering look at a young chef and his drive to succeed.

I have to confess that it took me a while to warm to Marcus Samuelsson, who first came to my attention when he competed on Top Chef Masters. I found him to be the potent  combination of too cocky and too whiny that turns me off. It took a few years and watching him mentor and give feedback to less-experienced chefs on Chopped and The Taste that eventually changed my mind. You can tell he really wants to help others succeed. There is an honesty in the book that I appreciate and I liked seeing his growth from boy to chef to man, but some of those less positive feelings did come back in parts where I felt like his story and his hard work to get where he is were somewhat eclipsed by a chip on his shoulder. I don't mean to minimize his struggles with discrimination, nor could I ever imagine what it was/is like to walk in his shoes, but there were times when I wanted him to stop with the poor me attitude and focus on the positive. The best parts of the book for me came from his more humble moments and when his love for his family and the respect he has for his mentors and his staff came through. 

Although I found his restaurant experiences and how Marcus developed his creativity, passion and food knowledge engrossing, it was his early food memories with his family that touched my heart. The lessons he learned in the kitchen of his maternal grandmother or Mormor (cooking with love, carefully building flavors, and making the most of the ingredients you have) made me smile. The pleasures of simple food, best illustrated in his trip with his father to Smögen to work on the family fishing boats, are what inspired my dish for this round--the simple open-faced sandwich with smoked mackerel that his aunt prepared and his uncle's reaction to it.

"In the kitchen Nini had laid out four open-faced sandwiches: sliced boiled eggs, roe paste, mayonnaise, and a sprinkling of chives on a piece of brown bread. With a knife, she quickly filleted the mackerel, dressed it with black pepper and garlic, and topped each piece of bread with the warm, flavorful fish. 

I carried Torsten's plate over to the table, placing it in front of him. He took a bite, and I could see in his face the pleasure he took in the rich simplicity of the meal: the flaky chunks of fish, the velvety texture of the egg, the saltiness of the roe. Then he closed his eyes. "That's a good life," he said."
--Yes, Chef

Between those words that I kept going back to, and honoring my quarter-Swedish blood, ;-) I decided to make a That's a Good Life Smörgå or a Swedish open-faced sandwich. I kept the essence and most of the main ingredients of the one Marcus described--brown bread (rye), hard boiled eggs, mayo, chives and (deep breath) mackerel. 

Why the deep breath? Mackerel and I have an issue. It's a long story involving a slightly tipsy evening at a Japanese-style pub or izakaya with a friend, where a combination of noise, beer and translation had the daily special of raw saba (mackerel) placed in front of us. Had it been smoked, grilled, or even raw and cut in small thin slices, I would likely have no issue, but this one just lay on the plate; it's small head looking up on one end, and it's tail sticking up on the other with the center chopped into chunks. Being adventurous foodies, we gamely egged each other on and managed to eat part of it, washed down by big gulps of beer--but it wasn't pretty and it has made me shy away from anything mackerel-ish in the years since. 

Deciding that I love most all other smoked fish and feeling my smörgå just wouldn't be the same with smoked trout or salmon, I decided to retest the mackerel waters. (The fact that smoked mackerel was significantly less $$$ than my other smoked fish options sealed the deal.) The package I bought was black pepper mackerel--no need for dressing. I have no love for, but no real issues with fish roe, but it was ridiculously spendy for a package that I didn't think I would use up, so I mixed a small amount of capers into my garlicky mayonnaise for a salty feel. For a pop of color and a bit of welcome bite, I added very thinly-sliced red onion and watermelon radish to the mix.

According to Marcus, Swedish food is connected by pickles and jam, and having a serving of pickles alongside rich foods enhances the flavor experience. A Swedish pickle is salty, sour, and quite sweet and follows the 1-2-3 blend of one part vinegar, two parts sugar, three parts water. I used the recipe from his website for Quick Pickled Cucumbers. The flavor of these (sweeter than my usual pickling recipes) reminds me a lot of the pickled cucumbers my mom made for my dad.

Marcus says, "These pickles are second only to lingonberry jam as the favorite Swedish condiment."

Quick Pickled Cucumbers
(Makes About 1 1/2 Cups

1 English (hothouse) cucumber
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 bay leaf
2 allspice berries

Slice the cucumber as thin as possible (use a mandoline or other vegetable slicer if you have one).  Put the slices in a colander, toss them with the salt, and let stand for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine the water, vinegar, sugar, bay leaf, and allspice in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let cool.
Rinse the salt off the cucumbers, and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Put the cucumbers in a medium bowl and add the pickling solution; they should be completely covered by the brine. Cover and refrigerate for 3 to 6 hours before serving.

Notes/Results: While mackerel will likely never be my top menu choice, a smackerel of smoked mackerel on a sandwich or in a spread is on the "yes" list. This sandwich is full of great flavor and texture with the dense dark rye bread, the creamy garlicky mayo, smoky and peppery fish, silky egg and the sharp pungency of the radish and red onion. The sweet and vinegary cucumbers are a perfect counterpoint to the richness of the sandwich. A pretty good life, indeed. ;-)  

The deadline for this round of Cook the Books is tomorrow, September 30th and Rachel will be rounding up the entries on the CTB blog soon after. If you missed this round and like food, books, and foodie books, join us for our October/November round when we will be reading The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais, hosted by yours truly. Come join us! 


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Chocolate Rochers with Hazelnuts, Rice Crisps, or Salted Caramel Peanuts for Food 'N Flix 5th Anniversary: The Goonies

I have participated and hosted several different blogging events over my seven+ years of blogging but my hands-down favorite has to be Food 'N Flix. This brilliant creation of cooking and film came from my friend Heather of girlichef and it celebrates its 5th Anniversary this month.(See the announcement post here.)

I have joined in from the beginning with the first pick of Chocolat and have loved seeing how each movie has inspired everyone to take to their kitchens and create their dishes. I would love to say that I participated in every one of the 60 movies selected but sometimes life gets in the way, and I have missed six movies by my count--including three this year when I was on a blogging break.

Movie Collage from Food 'N Flix

For this anniversary month, we were able to go back to any of the 60 films from the past five years which was quite a dilemma. Did I go back to a favorite film or go back to one that I missed? And, if I did go back to a missed film, which of them to choose?! (Trust me this is tough for an indecisive Libra!) ;-)

Finally I looked at the films I missed and decided to go to the one I regretted missing the most, May 2015's pick The Goonies, hosted by girlichef herself. Is it the best film, or the foodiest film? No, but it is fun, nostalgic, and having spent a good portion of my life in Oregon, I believe there is a state law that says you have to love The Goonies if you have ever lived there since it was set and most of the filming done in Astoria on the Oregon coast.

It's a sweet story with a group of underdog kids--'goonies'-who will be losing their homes as their families are being forced to sell to make way for a country club. They find a map that could lead them to the treasure of "One-Eyed Willie" and his band of pirates, while trying to escape a family of (really inept) criminals after the same treasure. Good and silly fun and haven't we all felt like a goonie at least once in our lives?!

Food inspiration in the film run mostly to junk food--pizza, corn chips, Pepsi, whipped cream, candy--especially Baby Ruth bars, and lots of ice cream. I wanted to make some kind of candy and something quick and easy to fit my busy month and habit of waiting until the last few days before the deadline to post. 

I have been meaning to whip up Jacques Pépin's Chocolate Rochers with Hazelnuts and Cornflakes from More Fast Food My Way and conveniently enough, it fit the movie (love it when that happens) as Jacques says, "Rochers is a French word meaning rocks, or little boulders, which is what these little chocolate confections look like." Or, as I like to think of them, little chunks--after the always hungry Lawrence "Chunk" Cohen. They are imperfect to look like Sloth, but are sweet and wonderful on the inside.

Jacques made his rochers out of bittersweet chocolate, half with hazelnuts and half with cornflakes, and says you can make them with any cereal, nut, dried fruit and chocolate you like. I picked a mix of good bittersweet and dark chocolate and kept the hazelnuts (there's a nod to Oregon there). Instead of cornflakes, I used the brown rice crisps cereal I had on hand, and for my final third I added some Planters Salted Caramel Peanuts--for a Baby Ruth-ish feel.

Chocolate Rochers
Adapted from More Fast Food My Way By Jacques Pépin
(Makes about 2 to 4 dozen--depending on the size you make them)

12 oz bittersweet chocolate. or chocolate of choice
1 1/2 cups whole, nuts, toasted
2 1/2 cups cereal of choice

Line a large pan or cookie sheet with plastic wrap or wax paper and set aside.

Break chocolate into 1-inch pieces and put them in a glass bowl. Microwave on high for about a minute. Wait a minute or two, stir with a rubber spatula  and microwave again, 30 seconds at a time, stirring in-between, until chocolate is melted, smooth and glossy. (You should have about a cup or so of melted chocolate.

Place the toasted nuts in a medium bowl and pour 1/2 of the chocolate on top. Mix well with a spoon to coat the nuts with the chocolate. Using a tablespoon, scoop up a spoonful of the chocolate-nut mixture and push the mixture off the tablespoon with a teaspoon onto the lined pan. Repeat.

Place the cereal into a medium bowl and add the remaining chocolate. Mix well with a spoon until completely combined and cereal is coated. Spoon the mounds onto the lined pan.

Cool the rochers until hardened. (I used the fridge as it is still warm and humid here.) The rochers will keep for 2 to 3 weeks stored in an airtight container in the fridge, or up to 2 months in the freezer.

Notes/Results: There you have it--easy and delicious. Jacques notes that he got the idea from Jacques Torres and that these make great holiday treats. I think they would be fun and simple for kids to make. My favorite were the hazelnuts to which I added a little sea salt, but the rice crisps version, and the salted caramel peanut ones were both pretty yummy too. A nice little treat to have when a chocolate craving hits, I will make them again. 

In addition to Food 'N Flix, I am linking these to I Heart Cooking Clubs where it is Potluck week. You can see which IHCC cooks and what recipes everyone made by checking out the picture links on the post. Quick note--the new IHCC chef for October-April was selected and we will be cooking along with nutritionist and cookbook author Ellie Krieger, so come and join us if you like recipes where delicious meets healthy. ;-)

The deadline for this 5th Anniversary round of Food 'N Flix is tomorrow, September 28th. Heather will be rounding up the different entries at girlichef shortly after. If you missed this round but love food, films, and foodie films, join us for October and some Halloween fun with Hocus Pocus, hosted by The Lawyer's Cookbook.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of "The Art of Crash Landing" by Melissa DeCarlo, Served with a Greek(ish) Pearl Couscous Salad with Lemon-Caper Dressing

On today's TLC Book Tour stop I am reviewing The Art of Crash Landing, a debut novel by Melissa DeCarlo. If you think you have problems or don't make the best choices, wait until you meet Matilda (Mattie) Wallace who is crashing fast and seems bent on repeating many of her late mother's mistakes. Mattie is not going down without a fight however, and although there is potential for some heartbreak in the story of a woman who is close to reaching bottom, there are plenty of laughs too. Accompanying my review is a fabulous Greek(ish) Pearl Couscous Salad with Lemon-Caper Dressing, inspired by my reading. 

Publisher's Blurb:

Broke and knocked up, Mattie Wallace has got all her worldly possessions crammed into six giant trash bags and nowhere to go. Try as she might, she really is turning into her late mother, a broken alcoholic who never met a bad choice she didn’t make.

When Mattie gets news of a possible inheritance left by a grandmother she’s never met, she jumps at this one last chance to turn things around. Leaving the Florida Panhandle, she drives eight hundred miles to her mother’s birthplace—the tiny town of Gandy, Oklahoma. There, she soon learns that her mother remains a local mystery—a happy, talented teenager who inexplicably skipped town thirty-five years ago with nothing but the clothes on her back. But the girl they describe bears little resemblance to the damaged woman Mattie knew, and before long it becomes clear that something terrible happened to her mother. The deeper Mattie digs for answers, the more precarious her situation becomes. Giving up, however, isn’t an option. Uncovering what started her mother’s downward spiral might be the only way to stop her own.

Paperback: 432 pages P
ublisher: Harper Paperbacks (September 8, 2015)

My Review

I really enjoyed the humor in The Art of Crash Landing. Mattie has a sarcasm and snarkiness that I responded to and she made me laugh out loud several times with her thoughts and comments. On the other hand, Mattie was a hard character to connect with for much of the book. She is immature for her age (30), has the soul of a grifter, possesses a lack of any accountability for her actions and choices, and is completely insensitive to others. It's a risk to have a main character that is hard to like and does not appear to be headed for a big character arc of redemption, but Melissa DeCarlo accomplished what I thought she wouldn't--she made me warm to Mattie as the book progressed. I would still place her in the category of "fun to have a cup of coffee with" rather than a good trustworthy friend but, by the end of the book doggonit, as much as I wanted to shake her and tell her to pull up her big-girl panties and stop blaming a tough childhood for her issues, I wanted to give her a hug too. I appreciated her spunk and snark, her push to find answers, and seeing glimpses of a heart. The book leaves optimism for her further growth, but I could just as easily see Mattie sliding back into past behaviors and bad choices. Yes, I want to shake her again...

There was much that made The Art of Crash Landing an enjoyable read. The loyalty of Mattie's stepfather 'Queeg' was touching, her pain at her mother's death and the memories of the events leading up to it were soul-wrenching. Those spots of sadness were offset by Mattie's own humorous outlook and attitudes which provided plenty of fun, as did her grandmother's smelly French bulldog twins--both named Winston, and her relationship with the uniquely-pierced, snarly, potty-mouthed Goth teen Tawny. I loved the small town of Grandy, Oklahoma with its quirky residents and how much DeCarlo made it come to life with her descriptions. The mystery of where things went wrong for Mattie's mother is absorbing and while I expected Mattie to figure it out as soon as I did, it kept me reading chapters to see what happened when she put everything together. The Art of Crash Landing is a smart and fun read with moments that pulled at my heartstrings and moments that made me snicker and snort. Melissa DeCarlo has crafted an impressive debut novel that shines with wit and energy from start to finish. 


Author Notes: Melissa DeCarlo was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and has worked as an artist, graphic designer, grant writer, and even (back when computers were the size of refrigerators) a computer programmer. The Art of Crash Landing is her first novel. Melissa now lives in East Texas with her husband and a motley crew of rescue animals.
Find out more about Melissa at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


Food Inspiration:

Maddie is broke and pretty much exists on a combination of stale food in her grandmother's cupboards and freezer, handouts, swiped apples and crackers from her library job, some fast food, and a couple of dinner dates, so it was a bit of a struggle to find my food inspiration. It seemed insensitive to make a drink with the alcoholism in the book, or to pick a food with painful connotations of Mattie's past. If I ate meat it surely would have been pork chops as it completely cracked me up when Mattie called a woman she was in a tug-of-war with over a pink bike "pork chop" (as in "F*#% off, pork chop.") Who does that and gets away with it? ;-)  Finally a dinner date between Mattie and attractive paraplegic paralegal Luke sparked a dish as it seems Mattie and I share a love for Greek salads. 

Wanting a more substantial meat-free meal and having boxes of Israeli couscous and chickpeas in the cupboard, I decided to add them to the usual mix of cucumber, tomato, red onion, and feta. I have been looking for a reason to make April Bloomfield's Lemon-Caper Dressing (recipe below) and I thought it would be an excellent addition to the salad since it has a bold flavor that would be readily absorbed by the pasta and beans.

I am not going to give you a detailed step-by-step of how to make a Greek (or Greek(ish) in this case) salad--you should just pick your ingredients and toss in the amounts you like. 

For this salad (about 4 good-sized portions) I used:
  • 3 cups cooked pearl (or Israeli) couscous
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1/2 of a small red onion
  • 1 pint of grape tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 1 English cucumber, skin on, halved length wise, then sliced (I don't bother scooping out the the seeds)
  • 1/2 cup kalamata olives, sliced in half
  • 3 Tbsp each coarsely-chopped fresh mint and flat parsley
  • about 4-oz good feta cheese, crumbled
  • black pepper to taste (you shouldn't need salt with the dressing & capers, olives & feta)
  • Lemon-Caper Dressing (recipe below) + lemon segments from dressing recipe, chopped, to taste. (I used the whole 3/4 cup--the pasta soaks it up

A few quick tips: 
  • Make the salad dressing and pour 1/4 cup of it into a large bowl with the sliced red onion and let them sit for 15 minutes or so while you cook the couscous and chop and prepare the other ingredients. This will take some of the bite out of the onion.
  • Put the warm couscous and the chickpeas into the bowl with the onions and add another 1/4 cup of the dressing. Gently mix it together. This will allow the couscous to absorb the dressing flavors.
  • Add the other ingredients (except for the feta) and gently stir to mix. Add the final 1/4 cup of dressing, or add remaining dressing to taste. Season to taste with the black pepper--you should not need much (if any) additional salt.
  • Don't add the feta until you are ready to serve the salad.
  • This salad is good cold but I really like it better at room temperature and even better several hours after being made or the next day when the flavors are blended and absorbed. 

Food 52 says, "At first glance, this is a shockingly brash dressing. April Bloomfield uses not just lemon juice, but whole lemon segments, and more mustard than could possibly seem like a good idea. But she also knows about restraint, and adds just enough addictive nips of caper and shallot to keep you going, and gentler undercurrents of lemon juice, salt, and sugar."

I made a few changes based on what I like (whole capers) and what I had on hand (honey instead of sugar). I ended up just segmenting one lemon and chopping the sections because (I am lazy and also) I didn't want big pieces of lemon competing with the other strong flavors in the salad. Because you get more juice sectioning, I added the juice from another 1/2 lemon. My changes are in red below.

Lemon-Caper Dressing
Very slightly adapated from April Bloomfield via
(Makes 1 Cup) (I got about 3/4 cup)

2 medium lemons (I used 2 1/2 lemons--see note)
3 Tbsp finely chopped shallots
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard (choose one whose flavor you like on its own)
2 tablespoons drained capers, finely chopped (I used 3 Tbsp, drained, unchopped)
1/2 teaspoon Maldon or another flaky sea salt
1/2 teaspoon superfine sugar (I used honey)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Segment the lemons over a bowl to catch the juices (see note below). Set aside. 

Squeeze the juice from the membranes into a separate bowl, add the rest of the ingredients, and stir well. 

Add the lemon segments and toss gently to coat them without breaking them up. Use straightaway or chill in the fridge, covered, for up to an hour. 

Note: To segment the lemons: Use a sharp knife to cut off just enough of the fruit's top and bottom to expose a full circle of the flesh on either end. Stand the lemon on one of its ends, place your knife point at the seam where the fruit meets the pith, and use a gentle sawing motion to cut away a wide strip of pith and skin, following the curve of the fruit from top to bottom. Repeat the process until all you have left is a nice, round, naked fruit. If you've missed any white pith, trim it off. Make a cut down either side of each segment, right against the membrane, and gently pry out each segment, one at a time. Flick out any seeds, and set the segments aside in a bowl, reserving the juicy membranes.

Notes/Results: Colorful and packed with flavor, this salad really hit the spot. Not a traditional Greek salad--why I called it Greek(ish), but with similar flavors. I really love the dressing but I am a fan of the three big flavors in it--lemon, mustard, and capers--and it is pungent with all three. I think it made a nice change from the sometimes strong vinegar taste of some Greek salads and it's pungency really works well to flavor the couscous and beans. You can adapt it to your tastes with other veggies--fennel, carrot, or red pepper, or switch out the couscous to a whole grain like barley or farro, or use quinoa or rice if you want something gluten free. I find pearl couscous to be fun to eat (love those little pasta spheres) and the beans add protein and the fiber the couscous lacks. I will definitely make this again--both the dressing and the salad.

I am linking this review and the dish inspired by the book to Novel Food--an event celebrating food inspired by the written word and hosted by my friend and fellow Cook the Books co-host Simona of Briciole. The deadline for this round (#25!) of Novel Food ends Monday, September 28th. 

Note: A review copy of "The Art of Crash Landing" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.