Tagliatelle with Asparagus and Peppers for The Food Explorer

The Food Explorer, by Daniel Stone  is a biography of David Fairchild,  and our most recent Cook the Books Club selection, chosen and hosted by my fellow Hawaiian blogger, Deb of Kahakai Kitchen. The full title adds: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats."  I enjoyed the book quite a bit, though this type of historic biography is outside my usual reading purview.  Very informative however, despite some of it being a bit dry, there's enough to keep one interested, with all his travel adventures and mishaps, the variety of seeds, cuttings and plants Fairchild, as well as his protegee, Frank Meyer, and contemporary, Walter Swingle, were able to ship back to the US, or carry themselves.

 From the Publishers:  "The true adventures of David Fairchild, a late 19th-century food explorer who traveled the globe and introduced diverse crops like avocados, mangoes, seedless grapes - and thousands more - to the American plate

In the 19th century, American meals were about subsistence, not enjoyment. But as a new century approached, appetites broadened, and David Fairchild, a young botanist with an insatiable lust to explore and experience the world, set out in search of foods that would enrich the American farmer and enchant the American eater.

Kale from Croatia, mangoes from India, and hops from Bavaria. Peaches from China, avocados from Chile, and pomegranates from Malta. Fairchild's finds weren't just limited to food: From Egypt he sent back a variety of cotton that revolutionized an industry, and via Japan he introduced the cherry blossom tree, forever brightening America's capital. Along the way, he was arrested, caught diseases, and bargained with island tribes. But his culinary ambition came during a formative era, and through him, America transformed into the most diverse food system ever created."

This photo is of a fruit that bears abundantly in our garden, and is new to most of the people I share it with.  Abiu, creamy, custard like and sweet, so another plant discovery right here.

To me the amazing variety and number of different fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices and ornamental plants in existence worldwide, clearly demonstrates the immense creativity of God, and His love for us, shown by this provision, in such an extravagant, incredible way, for our life on planet earth.  We are so blessed!

Something new all the time it seems!  I was in our market yesterday and the produce manager gave me a fruit to taste which looked a lot like a rambutan, but larger, and the fruit was sweeter.  She said it was a pulasan!  Of course, I had to bring home the seed and plant it in a nice 10 inch pot.  We'll see how it comes along.  It may end up replacing our rambutan.  Fairchild's favorite fruit, as it turns out, is also one of mine, the mangosteen.  However, I've been patiently waiting for the darn tree to fruit, for more than 15 years!  But, I'm with him, I love finding new plants and adding them to my garden.

As far as a dish inspired by this book, it would have to include something brought to the US by our featured explorers.  I ended up making a Tagliatelle with Asparagus, Peppers, Pancetta and Asiago Cheese, based loosely on Mario Batali's recipe in Babbo (his had parsnips). The explorers sent back so many thousands of plants, among them a number of varieties of peppers.  At one point, the USDA reported "more than ten new plants were arriving in America each day."  Asparagus was first introduced to America by  Fairchild's associate, Frank Meyer, who traveled extensively in China during a time Fairchild was based in Washington.

Tagliatelle with Asparagus, Peppers and Pancetta 

                              adapted from the recipe in Babbo by Mario Batali
     To serve 2
1/2 lb. tagliatelle or similar pasta
kosher salt
1/4 lb. pancetta or slab bacon, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 lb. asparagus spears, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
2 small sweet peppers, cut into slices
freshly ground black pepper
small bunch flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
Asiago cheese or Parmigiano-Reggiano, shredded, for serving

Bring a large pot of water to boil for the pasta, and meanwhile, prepare your mise en place.

In a medium saute pan, cook the pancetta or bacon over high heat until it is browned and the fat has been rendered, about 10 minutes.  Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels and set aside.
Add the butter, asparagus and peppers and saute over medium heat until the vegetables are cooked through, 5-6 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper, add the parsley and cook 1 minute longer.

Add 2 tablespoons salt to the boiling water and cook the pasta until done, as per package directions.  Drain, reserving some of the cooking water, and add to the pan of vegetables.  Toss over high heat to coat the pasta, adding more cooking water if necessary to keep the sauce from getting too tight.  Toss with the cheese before serving.

It was good to be reminded of all the work those plant explorers did to bring such an amazing variety of food to our tables.  We enjoyed this dish, one of  many ways to serve up the always versatile pasta.. I'll be sharing it for our Cook the Books Club Round-up of dishes inspired by The Food Explorer, also over at Beth Fish Reads for her Weekend Cooking event, and with Heather's Foodies Read Challenge for September.  Lots of good cooking ideas and book suggestions at these sites.  Be sure to stop by for a visit.


A Night of Miracles and Mango Coffeecake

Having just finished Night of Miracles, by Elizabeth Berg, I've got to say she's got another winner! I've reviewed several of Berg's novels in the past (The Art of Mending and Never Change), but am not letting that stop me.  When they're good, they're good, and you want to share it!

This one calls to mind the sadly late Maeve Binchey, featuring a number of diverse characters in a small town, whose lives are tied together in various ways. The central figure, an elderly woman, Lucille, is a consummate baking queen, who has begun to teach classes in her home, between fending off a few encounters with the Angel of Death.

So mentions of food abound, not just baked goods, but plenty of scrumptious Southern cooking turns up here, with another of the characters working in a local cafe.  Beware of constant temptations from the likes of Upside-down Chocolate Pudding Cake, Praline Cupcakes, and sugar cookies stuffed with raspberry jam.

From the Publishers:

"Lucille Howard is getting on in years, but she stays busy. Thanks to the inspiration of her dearly departed friend Arthur Truluv, she has begun to teach baking classes, sharing the secrets to her delicious classic Southern yellow cake, the perfect pinwheel cookies, and other sweet essentials. Her classes have become so popular that she’s hired Iris, a new resident of Mason, Missouri, as an assistant. Iris doesn’t know how to bake but she needs to keep her mind off a big decision she sorely regrets.

When a new family moves in next door and tragedy strikes, Lucille begins to look out for Lincoln, their son. Lincoln’s parents aren’t the only ones in town facing hard choices and uncertain futures. In these difficult times, the residents of Mason come together and find the true power of community—just when they need it the most."

I was called upon to bring some baked goods to an event, and summoned up my domestic goddess persona (what my ex-son-in-law called me).  This novel inspired a pan of Mango Coffeecake, the recipe adapted from one recently posted by Beth Fish Reads.

Mango Coffeecake
  from King Arthur Flour’s Whole Grain Baking, via Beth Fish Reads
One 9 x 13-inch cake
  • 2 cups (8 ounces) white whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup (2 1/8 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups (12 ounces) diced fresh peaches (or mangoes)

  • 2 tablespoons (1 ounce) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) sugar
  • 1 tablespoon unbleached all-purposed flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 350F. Grease and flour a 9 x 13-inch cake pan.

Make the cake: Whisk together the flours, baking soda, and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Cream together the butter and sugar in a large bowl. Beat in the egg. Add the dry ingredients one third at a time, alternately with the buttermilk. Add the vanilla. Stir in the peaches until evenly distributed. Pour and spread into the prepared pan.

Make the topping: combine the butter, sugar, flour, and cinnamon until evenly mixed. Sprinkle over the top of the batter.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Let cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Just scrumptious, perfect with coffee or tea!  My mango was a large one, on the slightly under ripe side, which is best for cooking.  I'll share this over at Beth Fish Reads for her Weekend Cooking event, and with Heather's Foodies Read Challenge, September Edition.  Check out the good food and book suggestions.


Perfect Cold Borscht for Hot Weather

This is the time of year when cold soups come into their own, and yes, it's still hot here.  I was very happy with the way this version of Borscht turned out.  I've tried others, good too.  There are probably as many variations of this soup as there are nostalgic emigres around.

On a related, sort of, subject?  We must have been in a Russian mood, as I ordered a jar of Shilajit, which if you've never heard of, is a supplement, a mineral rich tar found in high mountain ranges, like the Himalayas, Altai and Caucasus.  You add a small amount - less than 1/8 teaspoon to some tea and voila, energy!  It just came in the mail from Siberia, so I'll let you know how it works.  My brother-in-law, who is sold on the stuff, told me about it.

So, here's a delicious soup to be made earlier in the day, chilled and, then when you don't want to heat up your kitchen, there you have it!

Cold Borscht
From Good.Food.Stories

Makes 4 servings

    * 2 medium beets
    * 2 potatoes
    * salt
    * juice of 1 lemon
    * sour cream, thick yogurt or kefir
    * 2 teas. horseradish or to taste

    * 1 cucumber, seeded and cubed
    * 1/2 bunch scallions, thinly sliced, and or chive blossoms
    * 1/2 bunch dill, chopped
    * 1 hard-boiled egg, diced
    * 2 radishes, thinly sliced

Peel beets and potatoes and place, whole, into a medium saucepan. Fill with water just to cover the veg and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes (check beets and potatoes with a fork; you may need to extend the simmering time by a few minutes depending on the size of your veg). Remove the beets and potatoes and let cool for a few minutes, reserving the water.

Once the veg are cool enough to handle, grate the beets coarsely, either by hand or in a food processor, and dice the potatoes. When the water has cooled to room temperature, put the beets and potatoes back into the soup and refrigerate for a few hours or overnight (the longer the flavors can marry, the better).

When ready to serve, add salt and lemon juice to taste, drizzle with sour cream, and scatter your desired garnishes.  A number of years ago, I posted this Cold Beet Soup, garnished with garlic chives and their blossoms. A reprise in the same stunning color!

I served the Borscht with a loaf of freshly baked bread for a perfect simple meal!  I'll share this over at Beth Fish Reads for her Weekend Cooking event and with Deb at Kahakai Kitchen's Souper (Soup, Salad & Sammies) Sundays. Be sure to visit for some good reading suggestions and excellent food.


A Meal from Prune, The Cookbook

I've been enjoying Gabrielle Hamilton's cookbook, Prune, based on the recipes featured in her New York restaurant of that name, and which I checked out from our local library.  I didn't renew it though. Bought my very own copy, YES!  A fairly hefty tome.  And looking forward to trying many more of her recipes, methods and creative ideas.

We at Cook the Books Club had just read and reported on Gabrielle's previous book, a memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter, which led me to check out her cookbook. So glad I did.  Gabrielle's background, learning to cook with her French mother, working for various small restaurants, and catering companies, traveling and learning along the way, all informed her unique personal style and conception for Prune.


Blood, Bones & Butter Review With a Negroni!

We at Cook the Books Club are closing out this segment with our latest book selection, Blood, Bones & Butter, a memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton, and I'm just getting my post in under the wire.  I loved this book, found it a truly enjoyable read!  There's an old saying, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen" and does it ever apply here. Gabrielle not only stands it, she actually revels in it, the overwhelming, awesome heat of a small restaurant kitchen with 10 burners going.  She says: "I am the only one I know who likes it.....I feel like we are two small-time boxers---me and the heat---meeting in the center of the ring to tap gloves..."

Though I hadn't thought about heat too much in terms of restaurant work,  I do know that my own little kitchen often heats up beyond my tolerance and I just have to get out.  Go sit in front of a fan on the deck until I'm cooled down enough.  Not possible for anyone on a restaurant job.

What a trip! Gabrielle carries us along with her, from the beginning of her interest and contact with food prep, watching her French mother,  through years of camp cooking and catering, to the opening of her own unique little restaurant in New York City.   Her stint with various catering companies would certainly put one off ordering from them, by the way.  "The Inadvertent Education" adventures are narrated in a writing style that kept my interest to the end.   She is a truly talented, evocative raconteur and cook, her MFA in fiction writing clearly shows.  From the Publishers:
"Before Gabrielle Hamilton opened her acclaimed New York restaurant Prune, she spent twenty hard-living years trying to find purpose and meaning in her life. Blood, Bones & Butter follows an unconventional journey through the many kitchens Hamilton has inhabited through the years: the rural kitchen of her childhood, where her adored mother stood over the six-burner with an oily wooden spoon in hand; the kitchens of France, Greece, and Turkey, where she was often fed by complete strangers and learned the essence of hospitality; Hamilton’s own kitchen at Prune, with its many unexpected challenges; and the kitchen of her Italian mother-in-law, who serves as the link between Hamilton’s idyllic past and her own future family—the result of a prickly marriage that nonetheless yields lasting dividends. By turns epic and intimate, Gabrielle Hamilton’s story is told with uncommon honesty, grit, humor, and passion."
No recipes were given, though Hamilton did trigger our interest with some intriguing ideas: grilled, butterflied lobster, basted with smoked paprika butter, rye cracker omelette with fried duck skin, rabbit legs in vinegar sauce and of course, her mother-in-law, Alda's eggplant. However, I've reserved her cookbook, Prune, and am looking forward to eating that up.

There was also a drink mentioned frequently, in various places throughout the book, a Negroni, for which Hamilton does give a recipe.  She says: "The negroni is a short and perfect aperitivo made of equal parts bitter Campari, sweet vermouth, and floral gin over a couple of ice cubes with a small slice of fresh orange dropped in it to release its oils.  That perfectly Italian presence, which sparks your appetite and brightens your mood, holds in balance the sweet and the bitter, which I can't help but think of metaphorically, as the relationship with the non threatening Italian..."  Echoing as it does the sweet, the bitter and the sadness of their marriage.

I made mine with Bruto Americano instead of the Italian Compari, a nice switch-out, as this newer model Amaro has a great flavor profile! It’s very bitter (primarily from gentian root), and slightly citrusy from California Seville oranges and woodsy from balsam fir and buckthorn bark.

There you have it, my inspiration derived from our reading.  I enjoyed this little apertivo, and will probably make it on occasion in future, though mixed drinks don't frequently feature around here.  More usually it's wine with dinner.

I'm sharing this post over at Beth Fish Reads for her Weekend Cooking event, at Heather's Foodies Read Challenge, as well as at Cook the Books Club, of course.  Be sure to visit and see what everyone else is contributing and cooking. Caio!

 P.S. - Just got Prune, and OMG!  Love the heft and challenge of this book.  So much cooking inspiration, good ideas/recipes.  We can clearly see  how the experiences narrated in our book selection informed and contributed to her unique and very individual vision for Prune, the restaurant.


Cuban Cooking Inspired by Next Year in Havana

This was my first foray into Cuban cooking, and I believe into Cuban history or politics.  Next Year in Havana, by Chanel Cleeton, was an eyeopener, for me anyway.  I love reading about periods in history and about places I'm unfamiliar with, learning new things, especially when enfolded with an enjoyable, engrossing story.  Like this one.  Cleeton's novel is told from two perspectives, of those escaping the revolution and of the granddaughter, visiting Cuba for the first time, to scatter her grandmother's ashes.

From the Publisher:
"After the death of her beloved grandmother, a Cuban-American woman travels to Havana, where she discovers the roots of her identity--and unearths a family secret hidden since the revolution...

Havana, 1958. The daughter of a sugar baron, nineteen-year-old Elisa Perez is part of Cuba's high society, where she is largely sheltered from the country's growing political unrest--until she embarks on a clandestine affair with a passionate revolutionary...

Miami, 2017. Freelance writer Marisol Ferrera grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her late grandmother Elisa, who was forced to flee with her family during the revolution. Elisa's last wish was for Marisol to scatter her ashes in the country of her birth.

Arriving in Havana, Marisol comes face-to-face with the contrast of Cuba's tropical, timeless beauty and its perilous political climate. When more family history comes to light and Marisol finds herself attracted to a man with secrets of his own, she'll need the lessons of her grandmother's past to help her understand the true meaning of courage."

Reading this book inspired me to whip up something Cuban.  There were various foods mentioned, it's not all beans, rice, roast pork and rum. Though a Cuba Libre would go nicely with the book and before dinner!  Though I didn't use her slow cooker recipe, I found this Cuban National dish online, at Marta's blog, My Big Fat Cuban Family, and she includes some background on the dish:

"In the 1930’s, Cuban President Gerardo Machado made a proclamation that once a week everyone on the island would eat an “ajiaco” – a type of country stew made mostly with root vegetables and flavored with meat. According to my mom (a 93-year-old guajira) every restaurant, fonda, and home followed the “weekly ajiaco” rule. It was a way to use all the different root vegetables indigenous to Cuba, taking advantage of what was available in each province.

The classic ajiaco includes tasajo (salt-dried beef), which I don’t use at all. Some have chicken pieces. I favor the combination of flank steak, chicken broth and pork loin.  In other words, there are as many ways to make this tasty stew as there are Cubans in exile."

I did my own version, with homemade stock, some sausage and what was available in the market and in my garden.  For extra protein, since I eliminated most of the suggested meat items, and there were gandule beans (pigeon peas) to be harvested, about a cup of those were added too. And I made it in my cassoulet pot.  This is a basic recipe, which you can vary, as most do.

 Ajiaco Cubano
Courtesy of Cuban Recipes

¼ kg of jerked beef (salted meat)
   Note: I used a Kielbasa sausage, cut in pieces and     *chicken stock, instead of the jerk beef, chicken, pork     and bacon.
1 creole small hen.
½ kg of pork
87gram of bacon
National sausage (I used about 1/2 a large one)
2 corncob of fresh corn
¼ kg of yam
2 green plantains
¼ kg of taro
¼ of cassava
¼kg of sweet potato
¼kg of pumpkin
1 big onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 lemons
1 cup of tomato sauce or creole sauce
5 liters of water (as noted above I used about 4 cups stock instead)*
2 spoons of lard.
Salt to taste.

1. Chop the jerked beef, (if using) into pieces and place it to soak at least for 12 hours or from the previous night.  The following morning, drain it well and cook for 30 minutes with the hen already chopped into pieces, in a big pot with the water to medium flame.

2. After half hour, and it begins to get tender, add the pork chopped into pieces, and cook it for another 30 minutes.  Remove any scum that is formed on the surface

3. Meanwhile lightly fry onion in a pan with the lard, and the bacon, then add the national sausage and fry. Add to the soup.

4. Wash, peel and chop all the vegetables, add them to the pot with the stock and the meat, and add the corncob, and the lemon juice.

5. Cook it for 45 minutes until the clear soup gets dense. Add more salt.  If you want a thicker consistency, take out some piece of taro, pumpkin and yam, crush them and and put them again into the pot.

*I make a very flavorful stock in my pressure cooker,.from bones, and vegetable trimmings, accumulated in the freezer. Proven by the amazing taste of this stew.  Another note: you may want to cut the corn off the cobs before serving (or cooking).  It's cute, but....makes eating a bit sloppy.

I'll share the goodness over at Heather's Foodie Reads Challenge, July edition and with Beth Fish Reads for her Weekend Cooking event.  Be sure to visit and check out some good food and books.


Making Kim Chi and Reading Reichl

I've been a long time fan of Ruth Reichl, her memoirs particularly, and this latest, Save Me the Plums, is another engrossing read.  So many books, about one life!  Amazing.  This memoir chronicles the years of her Gourmet magazine experience, until just after its sad demise.

Reichl's major talent is an ability to convey an immediacy of taste, the perceptive description of personalities, surroundings and ambiance, in her writing, so that you are at one with the experience, along with her.  You can savor the duck, "rare, with the wild taste of lakes and forests," smell the salty caramel topping, and wonder at the magazine back of house shenanigans, intrigue and silliness.  Delicious fun and inspiring reading. With recipes!  I'm looking forward to making her German Apple Pancakes.   From the Publishers:

"When Condé Nast offered Ruth Reichl the top position at America’s oldest epicurean magazine, she declined. She was a writer, not a manager, and had no inclination to be anyone’s boss. Yet Reichl had been reading Gourmet since she was eight; it had inspired her career. How could she say no?

This is the story of a former Berkeley hippie entering the corporate world and worrying about losing her soul. It is the story of the moment restaurants became an important part of popular culture, a time when the rise of the farm-to-table movement changed, forever, the way we eat. Readers will meet legendary chefs like David Chang and Eric Ripert, idiosyncratic writers like David Foster Wallace, and a colorful group of editors and art directors who, under Reichl’s leadership, transformed stately Gourmet into a cutting-edge publication. This was the golden age of print media—the last spendthrift gasp before the Internet turned the magazine world upside down."


Kauai Inn Papaya Cake for The Victory Garden

Rhys Bowen has outdone herself again with The Victory Garden!  I just love her Royal Spyness and the Molly Murphy Series, as well
as her terrific stand alone novels, as is this one.  What a great writer!  Bowen has the ability to draw in and engage readers with her created world.

From the Publishers:
"From the bestselling author of The Tuscan Child comes a beautiful and heart-rending novel of a woman’s love and sacrifice during the First World War.

As the Great War continues to take its toll, headstrong twenty-one-year-old Emily Bryce is determined to contribute to the war effort. She is convinced by a cheeky and handsome Australian pilot that she can do more, and it is not long before she falls in love with him and accepts his proposal of marriage.

When he is sent back to the front, Emily volunteers as a “land girl,” tending to the neglected grounds of a large Devonshire estate. It’s here that Emily discovers the long-forgotten journals of a medicine woman who devoted her life to her herbal garden. The journals inspire Emily, and in the wake of devastating news, they are her saving grace. Emily’s lover has not only died a hero but has left her terrified—and with child. Since no one knows that Emily was never married, she adopts the charade of a war widow.


Pasta ala Norma for Auntie Poldi

I just finished the debut novel of a new series, Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, by Mario Giordano, and I did enjoy it, despite a few reservations.  Auntie is a definitely a character, albeit one prone to occasionally wavering somewhere on the edges of wonderland.

From the Library Journal review:

"There is a new amateur sleuth in town. Auntie Poldi, a 60-year-old Bavarian widow, decides to retire to Sicily and spend the rest of her days enjoying a good sea view and an abundance of Prosecco. Instead, she gets involved with investigating the death of Valentino, her handyman, and with an attractive police inspector. The characters are eccentric, bordering on over the top; the scenery is lovely; and the descriptions of food are fantastic. Poldi's nephew, an aspiring writer, lives in her attic bedroom and narrates the tale. There are some awkward pacing points in the book, which could be owing to difficulties in the translation; overall, it is a breezy mystery."

Auntie enjoys eating as well as drinking and flirting, so plenty of good food mentioned, both German and Italian, particularly Sicilian.  Poldi fixes a dish for her new Police Inspector friend, one I'd never heard of, though apparently a favorite in Sicily, Pasta ala Norma.  According to my sources, "a triumph of Mediterranean flavors, so called in honor of Vincenzo Bellini's opera "Norma". The story says that in the 19th century, Nino Martoglio, a Sicilian writer, poet and theater director, was so impressed when he first tasted this dish that he compared it to “Norma”, Bellini’s masterpiece.  And the name lasted ever since.


Melting Pot Meal for Buttermilk Graffiti

It's Cook the Books time here, and summing up our current selection, Buttermilk Graffiti, by Edward Lee. This CTB round is hosted by Debra of Eliot's Eats. It's a sort of memoir, travelogue, food journey across America.  As the full title says: "A Chef's Journey to Discover America's New Melting-Pot Cuisine."  Lee is a very empathetic fellow, totally engrossed and patient with all the people he interviews along the way.  The title he chose didn't grab me, though it has meaning for him.  Also, I am not averse to trying new things, but Lee's cooking was a little out there for my taste, with some weird food combinations.  That said, his journey and the people he encountered along the way were certainly interesting.  I especially enjoyed Captain Wally's story in the Trawling for Shrimp chapter.  Characteristically, Lee says, "I find myself driving to a stranger's home for no other reason than to cook food.  It is humbling to witness the kindness of people."

More from the Publishers:
"American food is the story of mash-ups. Immigrants arrive, cultures collide, and out of the push-pull come exciting new dishes and flavors. But for Edward Lee, who, like Anthony Bourdain or Gabrielle Hamilton, is as much a writer as he is a chef, that first surprising bite is just the beginning. What about the people behind the food? What about the traditions, the innovations, the memories?


A Dill Straw for Your Bloody Mary

I'm recommending another good mystery series here, and though this one, Murder on the Ile Sordou, is fourth in the progression by M.L. Longworth, you might want to start with an earlier book, perhaps Murder in the Rue Dumas.  The first in her series, Death at the Chateau Bremont didn't get as good a review, though I did enjoy it enough to get the next one.

I especially loved her evocative descriptions of a stunningly beautiful island off the coast of Marseilles.  The whole ambiance made me want to book a trip and stay in the hotel described, sadly though I know it doesn't exist. But maybe one like it??

Some privileged guests, among them a French film star have come for the grand opening.  The plot proceeds to thicken, with Longworth's investigative duo, Judge Antoine Verlaque and his lady love, law professor Marine Bonnet along for the ride.  They are on what is supposed to be an idyllic, relaxing vacation.

All the characters are very well fleshed out, and original.  As well, the food and wine descriptions are just too tasty.  On this remote island in the Mediterranean Sea, Hoteliers, Maxime and Catherine Le Bon have spent their life savings beautifully restoring the hotel.  They have also secured an ambitious young chef, Emile, for their kitchen, one who goes foraging for local wild herbs and plants.  And the varied, inspired menus have us wanting to try his wonderful creations.  He served the guests a starter that would be great with my drink: A Goat Cheese Crème Brûlée with Caramelized Onions.  Oh yes!


A Tea Shop Mystery and Quickie Chicken Tetrazzini

Among a number of cozy mystery series I enjoy, and get back to frequently, are the Tea Shop mysteries by Laura Childs.  My most current read being, Pekoe Most Poison. Theo's tea shop as described in her books, sounds so lovely, a soothing and relaxing place to chill out, until there is a murder in the vicinity, which of course, she must help to solve.  In this little who-done-it  she is invited to a "Rat Tea Party", supposedly a tradition from years past in Charleston, SC.   From the Publisher:

"When Indigo Tea Shop owner Theodosia Browning is invited by Doreen Briggs, one of Charleston's most prominent hostesses, to a "Rat Tea," she is understandably intrigued. As servers dressed in rodent costumes and wearing white gloves offer elegant finger sandwiches and fine teas, Theo learns these parties date back to early twentieth-century Charleston to promote better public health.

But this party goes from odd to chaotic when a fire starts at one of the tables and Doreen's entrepreneur husband suddenly goes into convulsions and drops dead. Has his favorite orange pekoe tea been poisoned? Theo smells a rat. And as she reviews the guest list for suspects, she soon finds herself drawn into in a dangerous game of cat and mouse..."


Peranakan Cooking for Crazy Rich Asians

Our current Cook the Books Club pick is Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, hosted by moi, with a Movie tie-in to Food n' Flix, hosted by Debra of Eliot's Eats.  The people featured in this novel are not just rich, but crazy rich.  Also, some of them, plain crazy.  But, happily for our purposes at CTBC, Singaporeans are food obsessed.  Lots of fabulous food is eaten, discussed and argued over, another local pastime.

This over the top romp mostly takes place in Singapore around the marriage of the century.  And two New Yorkers, NYU college professors, are heading off to participate in the extravagant event; Nicholas (the Best Man) and Rachel, his girlfriend, (who is clueless about his crazy family).  Even though Nicky's cousin Astrid has clearly warned him; "You can't just throw Rachel in the deep end like this.  You need to prep her, do you hear me?"  He doesn't see the need.  He has been raised not to talk about money.  His family are traditional and very private.  They don't do media interviews or seek publicity.

The wealthy people in Singapore are divided between the filthy rich old family Singaporeans, the recent  Chinese emigres "mainlanders", and assorted Malay royalty.  So we're given a look at the Asian jet set, with plenty of snobbery, greed, ridiculous spending, nasty gossip and rude behavior, but balanced out with large doses of humor and sarcasm, thanks to Mr. Kwan . In the end, it becomes quite clear that money may help, but it is not making people happy or nice. Kwan's novel is, at heart, a romance in the best sense, tried and true in the end.


Oatmeal Lace Cookies and President Roosevelt's Martini

I don't know about you, but if there's a particular sort of novel I especially appreciate, it's one with a competent female protagonist.  Two books I've recently finished illustrate this type. The Dead Cat Bounce, is a mystery series debut featuring Jacobia (Jake) Tiptree, recently retired from the stressful field of financial management in New York, and currently restoring a rambling old fixer-upper on an island in Maine.  She is a money whiz and home repair do-it-yourselfer (with occasional help).   And, just so you know, cat lovers out there, the dead cat bounce is a stock market term.  Her books have the added allure of being funny.Right from the first page:
 "...on that bright April morning when, after living cheerfully and peacefully in the house for over a year, I found a body in the storeroom. Coming upon a body is an experience, like childbirth or a head-on collision, that takes the breath out of a person. I went back through the passageway between the kitchen and the small, unheated room where in spring I kept dog food and dahlia bulbs, and where apparently I now stored corpses."  And, on page 3:
 "People in Eastport do not think the telephone grows naturally out of the tympanic membrane, and some of them will actually decide whether to answer it or not based on what sort of news they are expecting." and further down: "I think Ellie added, 'we should make sure the man is really dead.'  This struck me as pointless, since an ice pick in the cranium promised little in the way of future prospects.  But Ellie was determined; it was part of her down east Maine heritage, like being able to navigate in the fog or knowing how to dress out a deer."


Hawaiian Food for Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers

Our latest selection for Cook the Books Club is Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers, by Sara Ackerman, hosted by fellow Hawaii blogger, Deb from Kahakai Kitchen. Especially interesting to me as a resident on the island where this all takes place - The Big Island!  And so fascinating to visit a familiar locale at this time in the past. I don't believe I've ever read a book dealing with WWII and its impact on Hawaii, particularly The Big Island.

Other than the pies, there wasn't a whole lot of food mentions. Not that I noticed anyway. However, given the ambiance, we can use our imaginations. From the Publishers:

"Hawaii, 1944. The Pacific battles of World War II continue to threaten American soil, and on the home front, the bonds of friendship and the strength of love are tested.

Violet Iverson and her young daughter, Ella, are piecing their lives together one year after the disappearance of her husband. As rumors swirl and questions about his loyalties surface, Violet believes Ella knows something. But Ella is stubbornly silent. Something—or someone—has scared her. And with the island overrun by troops training for a secret mission, tension and suspicion between neighbors is rising.

Violet bands together with her close friends to get through the difficult days. To support themselves, they open a pie stand near the military base, offering the soldiers a little homemade comfort. Try as she might, Violet can’t ignore her attraction to the brash marine who comes to her aid when the women are accused of spying. Desperate to discover the truth behind what happened to her husband, while keeping her friends and daughter safe, Violet is torn by guilt, fear and longing as she faces losing everything. Again."

I had family over and prepared them a Hawaiian themed dinner. Kalua pork, Lomi Lomi Salmon, Macaroni Salad (local style) and Coconut cake. The Kalua pork was a first for me, and made in the pressure cooker. Traditionally, a whole pig would be slow cooked, overnight in an imu (a large rock and banana leaf lined pit in the ground, as they did in the book for their Christmas party). Much easier to start with some locally sourced, free range pork shoulder roast, a few banana leaves and some liquid smoke.  Oh yes!  It totally worked.


Cajun Cooking for Letters from Paris

If you've read The Paris Key, by Juliet Blackwell, here is another of her stunning, romantic novels, definitely not to be missed.  There is a love story, a bit of mystery to resolve and a fascinating new job.  Letters from Paris, tells the story of an orphan girl in Cajun country, Louisiana, who finally escapes small town life, then makes her way back home, finally ending up in Paris, tracing the origins of a funeral mask.  I especially enjoyed Claire's search for the woman behind the mask, the fascinating details of mask making, and all the delicious food mentions, from her home in the South to the wonderful food she encounters in France.  And, from the Publishers:

"After surviving the accident that took her mother’s life, Claire Broussard has worked hard to escape her small Louisiana hometown. But these days she feels something is lacking. Abruptly leaving her lucrative job in Chicago, Claire returns home to care for her ailing grandmother. There, she unearths a beautiful piece of artwork that her great-grandfather sent home from Paris after World War II.

At her grandmother’s urging, Claire travels to Paris to track down the century-old mask-making atelier where the object, known only as “L’Inconnue”—or The Unknown Woman—was created. Under the watchful eye of a surly mask-maker, Claire discovers a cache of letters that offers insight into the life of the Belle Epoque woman immortalized in the work of art. As Claire explores the unknown woman’s tragic fate, she begins to unravel deeply buried secrets in her own life."