The Discovery of Chocolate, Taste of Mexico Stew

Our current Cook the Books Club selection, hosted by Simona of Briciole, is The Discovery of Chocolate, by James Runcie.

In this fantastical tale, chocolate is indeed discovered, by Europeans anyway. Based on historical events, this is the very inventive, and frequently implausibly fleshed-out, tale of one, Diego de Godoy, a young Spaniard who joins up with a ship bound from Spain for the exploration and plunder of the New World with Hernan Cortes. Diego embarks on the journey, to impress and hopefully, win the right to marry his young and rather superficial Spanish sweetheart, despite his low class. She will wait for him to return with a treasure from the New World, something fabulous and worthy of her beauty and love.

Though Diego’s treasure turns out to be chocolate, he also finds true love when he meets Ignacia, a native woman in Mexico. This meeting leads him on an incredible, five hundred year journey, due to an "elixir of life" she mixes into his cocoa drink.

Unfortunately, the first 50 pages or so, describing the author's post adolescent sexual preoccupations, and the sadly true depredations of those Spanish conquistadors, totally put me off. However, I did decide to return and finish the book a few weeks later, albeit with reservations. I have the occasional bad habit of taking a peek at the end of books early on, just to reassure myself, and here discovered that the novel's second paragraph is a misleading summing up of his life, "I have lost all trace of my friends and family and have been separated from the only woman that I have ever loved." Suffice it to say that Runcie's debut tale does end well, though I much prefer his later writing.

The book was packed with food mentions, so plenty of inspiration for us at Cook the Books! Everything from chocolate in all its many guises, to European goodies encountered and created on Diego's journeys. Did you know that he invented Hersey's Kisses?? Truly.

My response, aside from a Chocolate Rum Soda (pictured above), and concocted from a home-crafted Creme de Cacao, was to make something inspired by the New World of Mexico. A stew, with lots of veggies, spices and pork loin, thickened a bit with cornmeal.

Here's my recipe, which serves 2 or 3, depending on appetite:

Chili Pork Loin Stew

1/2 onion, chopped
1/2 zucchini, chopped
1 Anaheim chili pepper, sliced (or hotter chilies if preferred)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons bacon fat
1 kohlrabi, chopped in chunks
2 carrots, chopped into wedges
1 potato, peeled and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon cumin
2 tablespoon chili powder (Mexican style)
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups (or more as needed) chicken (beef or vegetable) broth
1 heaping tablespoon bone broth (concentrated)
1/2 cup tomato sauce, or pureed tomatoes
2 tablespoons cornmeal
1 cup pork loin, cut in bite size chunks (mine was already perfectly cooked sous-vide, so I added at the end)

Heat the fat in your pot, on medium, add in the onions and saute a few minutes, then add garlic, chili pepper, spices (and meat if yours is not already cooked). Note: I could have added cocoa here, but didn't - don't let that stop you. Stir fry for 5 more minutes, then add in the remaining vegetables, stirring well a few more minutes before adding the chicken and bone broths.

Simmer until all the vegetables are tender. Then stir in the cornmeal, mixed with about a half cup of extra broth and the tomato sauce.  Stir and and if you are using previously prepared meat, add at his point. Continue cooking to thicken the stew. Taste to see if you want more seasoning, more broth, etc., stirring whilst sipping your Chocolate Rum Soda, Mojito, or Margarita.

Chocolate Rum Soda

1 1/2 jiggers Creme de Cacao
1/2 jigger dark rum
dash Cointreau
tonic soda & ice

Whisk together the creme de cacao, rum and Cointreau, add as much ice as you think necessary and top up with the tonic soda. Stir. Garnish with cilantro, culantro or mint.

We enjoyed this taste of South of the border stew, with a small salad and a small beer. This post is my contribution to our Cook the Books Club for the current selection, and you have until March 31st if you too want to read the book and cook up something it inspires. I'll also send this to Beth Fish Reads for her Weekend Cooking event and to the March Foodies Read Challenge.


Lavender Scones In The Apple Orchard

I've just finished another terrific Susan Wiggs novel, The Apple Orchard.  It is like many of her books, setting permeated throughout.  And, happily for me, recipes sprinkled here and there as well.

Tess Delaney, in this book is  is a driven, ambitious, and stressed out provenance authenticator for a major auction house.  She loves her job, travels frequently and has no personal or home life to speak of.  Tess gets some dramatic news while dashing to a meeting, and basically flips out with a full-blown nervous breakdown.  From the Publisher:

"Tess Delaney loves illuminating history; returning stolen treasures to their rightful owners and filling the spaces in people's hearts with stories of their family legacies. But Tess's own history is filled with gaps: a father she never met, and a mother who spent more time traveling than with her daughter.  
Then the enigmatic Dominic Rossi arrives on her San Francisco doorstep with the news that the grandfather she's never met is in a coma and that she's destined to inherit half of a hundred-acre apple orchard estate called Bella Vista. The rest is willed to Isabel Johansen, the half sister she never knew she had. Isabel is everything Tess isn't, but against the rich landscape of Bella Vista, with Isabel and Dominic by her side, Tess begins to discover a world where family comes first and the roots of history run deep."
A lovely book with nuance and meaning, plus family reconciliation and love.  Highly recommended.

As I mentioned, recipes are scattered here and there, as it turns out Tess's half sister is an accomplished cook, which is how she deals with stress.  I suppose it's better to cook than just eat when under stress.

I loved the sound of her Danish Apple Pie with Caramel Apple Topping, the Grape and Rosemary Focaccia and a Salmon Fisherman's Pie (Tweed Kettle Pie) which I almost decided to make for St. Pat's.  But, instead the Lavender Scones were calling my name.  Often I will buy ingredients, intending them for a particular recipe, then they languish.  Thus, the lavender buds.  I also have some rose petals and rose water meant for an Ottolenghi recipe which need to be used.

This is an excellent recipe for when I'm out of cream, which my usual go-to scones recipe from Alice Waters  calls for.  This one has buttermilk (or in my case kefir) and some oats to go with the lavender.  They turned out moist and flavorful.  I'll share all the goodness over at Beth Fish Reads for her Weekend Cooking event and at the March Foodies Read Challenge.  Check out both for some great food and books.


Roast Stuffed Pumpkin and The Art of Mending

I just finished The Art of Mending, by Elizabeth Berg.  A novel and fine allegory on mending things rather than throwing them out.  Family members and friends particularly.  The woman makes quilts, and uses both new and old materials for her commissions.  She discovers the idea might also be transferred to seemingly hopeless people.  Berg delivers a well done bit of personal character growth, along with her story of a family coming together for an annual event, where tragedy faces them.  From the Publishers:

"It begins with the sudden revelation of astonishing secrets—secrets that have shaped the personalities and fates of three siblings, and now threaten to tear them apart. In renowned author Elizabeth Berg’s moving new novel, unearthed truths force one seemingly ordinary family to reexamine their disparate lives and to ask themselves: Is it too late to mend the hurts of the past?
Laura Bartone anticipates her annual family reunion in Minnesota with a mixture of excitement and wariness. Yet this year’s gathering will prove to be much more trying than either she or her siblings imagined. As soon as she arrives, Laura realizes that something is not right with her sister. Forever wrapped up in events of long ago, Caroline is the family’s restless black sheep. When Caroline confronts Laura and their brother, Steve, with devastating allegations about their mother, the three have a difficult time reconciling their varying experiences in the same house. But a sudden misfortune will lead them all to face the past, their own culpability, and their common need for love and forgiveness."

What all this has to do with pumpkins is your guess.  Well, the big family get together was at the State Fair, where of course, pumpkins are displayed, usually monstrous prize-winners .  And then I ran into this beautiful, though wee specimen.  Couldn't resist taking him home.  And finding a good recipe to stuff the little prize with.

Ruth Reichl, via Gourmet Today, came through once again, and I followed the recipe, as per, for once in my life.  Well except for using Gouda instead of Emmental with the Gruyere, which I did have.  Her recipe involved a 7 lb. pumpkin, while this was about a 1.25 pound Winter squash of some sort.  So the ingredients had to be cut down quite a bit, but perfect for the two of us.  Basically, you cut the top out, layer in your stuffing of bread, cream, cheese, etc., set the top back on and roast it.  Pretty simple and easy, with delicious results.  I roasted it for about 1.25 hrs. and it came out beautifully.  This little baby wins the prize for taste, texture and looks of any pumpkin, in my memory at least.  I want more of them.

This is a perfect main course, with fresh salad greens on the side, which I was able to pick from the garden: mizuna, arugula, lettuce, and endive.  My greens are enjoying our cool, rainy weather of the moment, more so than most of us people.  Cool is fine, but rain can be sometimes just a tad excessive.

I'll be sharing this post over at Beth Fish Reads for Weekend Cooking and with Simona of Briciole for her Novel Food event.  Be sure to stop by and check out all the good food and books.


Family Tree and A Sweetheart Dinner

An engrossing, romantic novel, packed full of good food ideas.  What more could you ask for a Valentine's Day read? Family Tree, by Susan Wiggs is all of that and more.  It's about Annie, an independent minded cook, with vision and ambition.  However the career push takes her away from her home, her roots and from the love of her life.  I loved this book.

From the Publishers:

"Sometimes the greatest dream starts with the smallest element. A single cell, joining with another. And then dividing. And just like that, the world changes. Annie Harlow knows how lucky she is. The producer of a popular television cooking show, she loves her handsome husband and the beautiful Los Angeles home they share. And now, she’s pregnant with their first child. But in an instant, her life is shattered. And when Annie awakes from a yearlong coma, she discovers that time isn’t the only thing she’s lost.Grieving and wounded, Annie retreats to her old family home in Switchback, Vermont, a maple farm generations old. There, surrounded by her free-spirited brother, their divorced mother, and four young nieces and nephews, Annie slowly emerges into a world she left behind years ago: the town where she grew up, the people she knew before, the high-school boyfriend turned judge....Family Tree is the story of one woman’s triumph over betrayal, and how she eventually comes to terms with her past."


Chocolate Liqueur via Sous-Vide or Not

Happy Valentine's Day!  At the back of Lisa Q. Fetterman's Sous-Vide at Home book, I noticed she was making her own bitters and liqueurs and it occurred to me that my cacao nibs would make a lovely home-crafted Creme de Cacao. Some research pulled up a number of articles on the subject: Supercall has a good recipe, for which you don't need a sous-vide appliance.  Then there's Making cacao nib infused liquor, and a great lesson on video for using sous vide to infuse cocktails.


Polenta with Garlicky Greens and Poached Egg for SPQR

 This has been a TRULY Roman season for me.  First there was Feast of Sorrows, for our Cook the Books Club, then I read Pompeii by Robert Harris, a very interesting and enjoyable book, which I didn't review however, and now The Year of Confusion by John Maddox Roberts. All accompanied by my various ancient Roman cooking experiments, with some help from the excellent little handbook on that subject, Cooking Apicius, Roman recipes for Today by Sally Grainger.

 This novel (which stands alone fine) is in Roberts' series of mysteries, entitled SPQR*, in which the investigator, is a Senator in the years 45-46 BC.  The reason for it being the year of confusion, is partly due to Julius Caesar's decision to change the old calendar out for a new one.  Yes, the Julian calendar.  General unrest as a result, political scheming and various murders, connected with Cleopatra who is present in Rome with her own complications and agenda.  A well developed tale, entertaining characters, and fascinating history, with a helpful glossary of relevant terms at the back. Can't wait to read more in this series.


Cooking for Picasso, A Daube de Boeuf Provencal

I must say, Cooking for Picasso, by Camille Aubray, was a particularly enjoyable novel.  As Margaret Atwood says, "A tasty blend of romance, mystery and French cooking.  There's Picasso exposed, the French Rivera, food, passion and love, difficulties overcome by terrific characters.  What more could you ask? 

 From the Publishers:
"This captivating novel is inspired by a little-known interlude in the artist’s life.
The French Riviera, spring 1936: It’s off-season in the lovely seaside village of Juan-les-Pins, where seventeen-year-old Ondine cooks with her mother in the kitchen of their family-owned Café Paradis. A mysterious new patron who’s slipped out of Paris and is traveling under a different name has made an unusual request—to have his lunch served to him at the nearby villa he’s secretly rented, where he wishes to remain incognito.
Pablo Picasso is at a momentous crossroads in his personal and professional life—and for him, art and women are always entwined. The spirited Ondine, chafing under her family’s authority and nursing a broken heart, is just beginning to discover her own talents and appetites. Her encounter with Picasso will continue to affect her life for many decades onward, as the great artist and the talented young chef each pursue their own passions and destiny.


Sous Vide at Home, a Salad and Ahi alla Pesto

Sous Vide  - the device and a book -  my Christmas present to myself.  Cheers!! Fun with a new appliance.  At least it takes up very little room when not in use.  I did try McGivering this technique, without too much success a number of years ago.  There are now amazing  and inexpensive tools for doing sous vide at home, like the restaurants do it.  The handy tool clamps onto a large pot of water, circulating and heating it to an exact temperature, programmed to cook for the set time. You probably know all this, but it was only recently brought to my attention.  Sous-Vide at Home, by Lisa Q. Fetterman, is the bomb!.

So far I've done the poached eggs, beets marinated in various good things and ahi in pesto.  Looking forward to making duck confit without loads of duck fat, tempering chocolate and infusing liqueurs.


Cooking Roman for Feast of Sorrow

We at Cook the Books Club have been reading Feast of Sorrow, by Crystal King.  This, our current bimonthly selection is being hosted by Debra of Eliot's Eats.  Ms. King has written an excellent novel for anyone interested in ancient Roman history, food or just some fascinating reading.  It's a fictional memoir, based on the life of an individual, historical gourmet, Marcus Gavius Apicius, even though not much is really known about him, and his imagined head chef, a slave named Thrasius.  It begins in 1 BCE, the 26th year of Augustus Caesar's reign. The author has certainly done her research, everything rings true, often horrifyingly so. 

From the publishers:
"Set amongst the scandal, wealth, and upstairs-downstairs politics of a Roman family, Crystal King’s seminal debut features the man who inspired the world’s oldest cookbook and the ambition that led to his destruction.