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NYT Bestselling Author. Reluctant master of packing light. Lover of beautiful shoes & spicy food. Lapsed ballerina. Cook. Book junkie.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

READ THIS - WATCH THIS - COOK THIS: April


For a respite from the crazy around us, my suggestions for what to read, watch, and cook during April…


READ THIS


Margaret George, The Memoirs of Cleopatra




This book…..oh, this book! I bought it to read on a plane. Thought it looked interesting and, furthermore, it was long enough that I figured it would get me through the flight there and back. It did much more than that.

This is one of those novels that grabs you by the shoulders, pulls you in, and doesn’t let go, even after you’ve finished the last page. The best historical fiction based on actual people and events takes what we know from primary sources and fills in the details, offering us the chance to better understand the past. George is a master when it comes to seamlessly incorporating thorough—and accurate—research. She’s never didactic, but you will come away from her retelling of Cleopatra’s life realizing that everything you thought you knew about the last Egyptian pharaoh is, pretty much, wrong. If you’re like me, you’ll also come away with a deep and abiding hatred of Octavian. You will scoff at the mention of anything Augustan. You might, even, be inclined to take scowling photos next to busts of the emperor.  You will wish there was a way to rehabilitate Marc Antony’s reputation. But most of all, you will fall madly in love with this intelligent woman who the Roman historian Dio Cassius described as "brilliant...with the power to subjugate every one..."

I bought this in hardcover. When it came out in paperback, I bought that, too, so that my hardcover wouldn’t get too worn out. And now I’ve got the e-book as well. Yeah. It’s one of those. Read it now; you won’t regret it.

True story: When I was doing an event in Madison, Wisconsin, I had my best-ever writer moment. Margaret George came to my signing. I have to say it again. MARGARET GEORGE CAME TO MY SIGNING. I still get giddy whenever I think about it. Funnily enough, a few minutes before she arrived I was singing the praises of The Memoirs of Cleopatra to the booksellers…


WATCH THIS


The Misadventures of Margaret



OK, so this is a quirky movie that a lot of people hate. I get that it stretches credulity to suggest that any woman would get irritated by Jeremy Northam reciting love poetry to her, but don’t let that put you off. It’s witty and fun and based on Catherine Schine’s satirical novel Rameau's Niece. Which reminds me: I loaned my copy to someone and never got it back. Anybody know where it is? I’ll love you forever if you return it. At any rate, Schine’s story is a riff on Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, a deliciously witty philosophical dialogue that might remind you a bit of Candide.

In the film, Margaret (Parker Posey) is a catastrophically neurotic writer who, after penning a blockbuster bestseller, is paralyzed with writer’s block. For the follow-up to her debut, she’s trying to adapt the 18th century diary of a French philosopher and is getting nowhere until she travels to France and discovers the truth about the philosopher’s relationship with the beautiful, young woman he is tutoring.

The film bounces back and forth between Margaret’s world and that of her book as she imagines the scenes she’s writing (often with deliberate anachronisms from her own life). The strong supporting cast, including Elizabeth McGovern, Brooke Shields, and Craig Chester, provide lots of laughs. Northam nails his role as Edward, Margaret’s dreamy English professor husband. In the book Schine describes the character thus:

"If he had been seated beside a rock, he would have quickly begun an animated discussion of its layers of granite or sandstone or lime, its life underground, its ocean journeys and aspirations for the future. Intoxicated by this encounter, he would regale Margaret with tales of the rock's history, which he would tell with such enthusiasm and such grace that she would laugh and hope that some day she too might sit beside a stone at dinner. And the stone? It would sigh and bask in its newly realized glory, its importance and beauty, necessity and dignity: I pave roads and build towers, I form mountains, I rest on the throats of gracious ladies!"

Don’t try to tell me you don’t want to watch Northam be this man; I’ll know you’re lying.

It’s a fun romp, always eccentric, occasionally sly, and often silly. But go with it; you’re bound to laugh at least once.


COOK THIS


Buttermilk Scones




I’m sure none of you need me to explain why we all need a great scone recipe. This is my favorite, adapted from Baking with Julia. Yep. More Julia Child. Because she’s the best. In this book, she brings in master bakers to contribute, and Marion Cunningham is the genius behind this recipe.

3 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
1 ½ sticks (6 oz) cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 cup (approximately) buttermilk
Zest from one good-sized lemon

Set aside an additional half stick (2 oz) of melted butter to brush on the scones

Preheat oven to 425

In a medium bowl, stir the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together with a fork. Add the cold butter pieces and, using your fingertips, work the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. It’s OK if some largish pieces of butter remain—they’ll add to the scones’ flakiness.

Pour in 1 cup buttermilk, toss in zest, and mix with the fork only until the ingredients are just moistened—you’ll have a soft dough with a rough look. If the dough looks dry, add another tablespoon of buttermilk. Gather the dough into a ball, pressing it gently so that it holds together, turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface, and knead it very briefly—a dozen turns should do it.

Roll dough, using a light touch, until it is ½ inch thick. Using a biscuit cutter, cut out the scones. I generally use a 2-inch round cutter, but you can choose whatever size you prefer. Place the scones on a parchment-covered baking sheet, leaving space between each, and brush the tops with the melted butter.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until both the tops and bottoms are golden (time will partly depend on what size cutter you used, so keep an eye on them as they bake). Transfer scones to a rack and cool slightly.


They are spectacular warm with butter on them, or at any temperature with jam and cream. Obviously, you will need tea with them…

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

READ THIS - WATCH THIS - COOK THIS : March

It’s the first of the month again, time to share three more things I love, in my ongoing effort to focus on the positive…

READ THIS





Pauline Gedge, Lady of the Reeds

Set in ancient Egypt, this is one of my absolute favorite novels. Gedge tells the story of a girl whose sharp intelligence and driving ambition lead her away from the rural village in which she grew up to the court of Ramses III. She studies, eventually becoming a physician, and before long is intimately connected to the pharaoh. Gedge’s vivid writing will pull you in entirely, so that when you look up from the book you’ll be shocked to find yourself in the modern world and will long to return to the banks of the Nile. Wonderful characters and a consuming story. Plus, if you never before thought you wanted a body servant, you’ll change your mind after reading this.


WATCH THIS




Le dîner de cons…or, The Dinner Game. Yes, I love French movies. This one, starring Thierry Lhermitte and Francis Verber, tells the story of a man whose snark catches up with him. He and his pals host a weekly “Idiot Dinner,” where each brings an idiot (unbeknownst to the idiot, of course). I hesitated to watch this at first, as I can’t stand people being mean (and, hi, the entire idea of the dinner is mean), but it’s executed brilliantly and things turn out exactly as they should. Funny, charming, and all-around entertaining.

COOK THIS




Julia Child’s recipes are quite simply the best. They’re reliably delicious and she explains her methods with perfect clarity, including when she tells you how to fix anything you’ve messed up. Her Chicken with Tarragon is a go-to for me, but she doesn’t have to explain fixes on this one because you’re not going to mess it up. It’s more labor-intensive than an ordinary roasted chicken, but well worth the investment of time. I serve with sautéed potatoes and haricots verts.

Poulet Poêlé à L’Estragon
(Casserole-roasted Chicken with Tarragon)
Adapted from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking

When a chicken is cooked this way, it is trussed, browned in butter and oil, then set to roast in a covered casserole with herbs and seasonings. It is a lovely method, as the buttery, aromatic steam in the casserole give the chicken great tenderness and flavor.

Preheat oven to 325

A 3-4 lb roasting chicken
¼ tsp salt
Pinch of pepper
2 TBSP butter
3-4 springs of fresh tarragon (or ½ tsp dried)

Season the cavity of the chicken with salt, pepper, and 1 TBSP of the butter. Insert the tarragon leaves, or sprinkle in dried tarragon. Truss the chicken. Dry it thoroughly and rub the skin with the rest of the butter.

A heavy fireproof casserole just large enough to hold the chicken on its back and on its side
2 TBSP butter
1 TBSP olive oil, more if needed

Set the casserole over moderately high heat with the butter and oil. When the butter foam has begun to subside, lay in the chicken, breast down. Brown for 2 to 3 minutes, regulating heat so butter is always very hot but not burning. Turn the chicken on another side, using two wooden spoons or a towel. Be sure not to break the chicken skin. Continue browning and turning the chicken until it is a nice golden color almost all over, particularly on the breast and legs. This will take 10 to 15 minutes. Add more oil if necessary to keep the bottom of the casserole filmed.

3 TBSP butter, if necessary

Remove the chicken. Pour out the browning fat if it has burned, and add fresh butter.

½ cup sliced onions
¼ cup sliced carrots
¼ tsp salt
3 or 4 springs of fresh tarragon (or ½ tsp dried)



Cook the carrots and onions slowly in the casserole for 5 minutes without browning. Add the salt and tarragon.

¼ tsp salt
A bulb baster
Aluminum foil
A tight-fitting cover for the casserole

Salt the chicken. Set it breast up over the vegetables and baste it with the butter in the casserole. Lay a piece of aluminum foil over the chicken, cover the casserole, and reheat it on top of the stove until you hear the chicken sizzling. Then place the casserole on a rack in the middle level of the preheated oven.

Roast for about an hour to an hour and 10-20 minutes, regulating heat so chicken is always making quiet cooking noises. Baste once or twice with the butter and juices in the casserole. The chicken is done when its drumsticks move in their sockets, and when the last drops drained from its vent run clear yellow.



Remove the chicken to a serving platter and discard trussing strings.

Brown Tarragon Sauce

2 cups brown chicken stock, or 1 cup beef broth and 1 cup chicken broth
1 TBSP cornstarch blended with 2 TBSP Madeira or port
2 TBSP minced tarragon
1 TBSP softened butter

Add the stock or broth to the casserole and simmer for 2 minutes, scraping up coagulated roasting juices. Then skim off all but a tablespoon of fat. Blend in the cornstarch mixture, simmer a minute, then raise heat and boil rapidly until sauce is lightly thickened. Taste carefully for seasoning, adding more tarragon if you feel it necessary. Strain into a warmed sauceboat. Stir in the herbs and the enrichment butter.




To Serve

Pour a spoonful of sauce over the chicken, and decorate the breast and legs with additional fresh tarragon leaves. Platter may be garnished with sprigs of fresh parsley or—if you are serving them—sautéed potatoes and broiled tomatoes.

If the chicken is not to be served for about half an hour, make the sauce except for its butter enrichment, and strain it into a saucepan. Return the chicken to its casserole. Place aluminum foil over it and set the cover askew. Keep the casserole warm over almost simmering water, or in the turned-off oven, its door ajar. Reheat and butter the sauce just before serving.