Reading may seem like a solitary pleasure, but we do not believe it is so. As we read, we intimately interact with writers, the worlds they create, and our own inner selves as well as the real world that surrounds us. Some of us are also blessed enough to have friends to share the experience with.

While discussing the idyllic village of Three Pines and the captivating characters author Louise Penny created in the Inspector Gamache books, we were aware of the sensory pleasure to be had in the meals described. Olivier’s Bistro, Gabri’s baking, and dinners at the Morrow’s can easily make us salivate while reading the books… Louise Penny's books, are a wonderful entrée into a sensual world, where each book is a season, capturing its mood and flavours, and contributing to the layers of meaning about the characters, who are marvellously revealed over the series.

At one point, a daydream of going through the series with a notebook in hand, writing down all these meals and later cooking them, took shape. This is our "notebook". We hope you enjoy this literary-culinary-sensory-philosophical journey.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Haida Feast...Connections and Stories

by Libby

‘The women of both clans have done a traditional Haida feast for you, Chief Inspector.’ (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.420)

Gamache is in the Queen Charlotte Islands pursuing some possible connections to the murder investigation in Three Pines; with a trail of references to 'Charlotte', Woo' (and by association, the artist Emily Carr) and the Hermit's red cedar carvings all pointing to the Islands. It seems quite a leap of faith to Beauvoir who disapproves, in his inimitable way.
We have plenty of clues to follow without thinking about a monkey, a hunk of wood and some godforsaken island the hell and gone across the country.’ (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.410) 
I love a feast, being able to pick and choose and sample a variety of savoury and sweet foods. I really enjoying putting one on, too. I guess it's my way of making a fuss of others. We always hold a feast in the new year to celebrate our connection to certain friends, and to look forward to the possibilities of the next twelve months. I also like the challenge of discovering and experimenting with different flavours and dishes, and broadening my culinary horizons.

The Haida feast is one I would have happily attended, full of bounty from the sea. I live in a coastal area that has an abundance of seafood, too. And crabs are in season right now. So I decided to make the crab cakes that were offered at the feast. Crab meat (I used blue swimmer crabs) has a delicate taste that is easily overpowered so it's best not to be heavy handed with other ingredients. Lightly fried, the crab cakes go well with a mayonnaise or savoury dipping sauce.

Hmmm...I might have got carried away with the photographs for this post, but they do help to explain things at a glance!

Crab cakes

250g/9oz of crab meat (I used 4 freshly cooked crabs)
1 tablespoon of chopped coriander leaves/cilantro
1 tablespoon of finely chopped spring onion
1 egg, lightly mixed with a fork
1 tablespoon of crème fraîche
½ teaspoon of lime juice
½ teaspoon of fish sauce
1 cup of fresh breadcrumbs
¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of unsalted butter

Sorry, I only need 4 crabs!

1.  Combine all the ingredients except the breadcrumbs and oil/butter.

 2.  Shape the mixture into cakes and coat each one with breadcrumbs. 

The fresh breadcrumbs make all the difference. They give a light, crunchy coating when fried.
3.  Refrigerate for at least an hour for the cakes to 'set'. 

4.  Heat the oil/butter over medium heat and fry the cakes until browned on both sides. Adjust the heat if necessary.

They need less than two minutes on each side. Drain on kitchen paper.  

Serve with your choice of dipping sauce.

Dipping sauce  

I made a light Vietnamese sauce that has a lovely flavour balance of sweet/sour/salty/hot (easy on the chilli, though) that works very well with the crab.

1½ tablespoons of fish sauce
1½ tablespoons of rice vinegar
1 tablespoon of sugar
¼ cup of water
1 tablespoon of lime juice
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
half a small red chilli, finely sliced

Stir the fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium heat until the sugar dissolves and simmer point is reached. Cool and then add the lime juice, garlic and chilli, to taste.

These crab cakes are ideal as a starter or appetiser, and they can be made well ahead of time. But I don't think you can beat eating a crab, simply straight from the shell! 

Gamache's entree to the Haida community provides an insight to their connection to the land, their totem art, their fight to stop the decimation of their ancient forests through logging and their continuing protection of the wilderness and their culture.
'The sea feeds our bodies, but that feeds our souls.’ He opened his hands in a simple, small gesture towards the forest. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.429)
It is through learning about the Haida totems, and the stories and history they document in an 'ordered way', that Gamache is able to make a connection to the Hermit's carvings, recognising that they too have an order, that a story is being told, with the power to convey feelings of fear, hope, betrayal.
This murder was about fear. And the lies it produced. But, more subtly, it was about stories. The tales people told the world, and told themselves. The Mythtime and the totems, that uneasy frontier between fable and fact. And the people who fell into the chasm. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.470)
The ramifications are resounding.

At any feast there is always dessert to consider...among other things.  
Over cake, fresh bumbleberries and Cool Whip Gamache told them about the murder.  (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.420)
I like to make a bit of a fuss with desserts, as we normally don't eat them on a day-to-day basis. They're always a little bit special! I love their aesthetic possibilities; the play of flavours and textures, the look. I couldn't resist making this dessert, but I could certainly resist the Cool Whip (13 ingredients, highly processed). 

My take on this dessert is a sponge, filled and covered with a mix of pure cream and home-made mascarpone (which is actually a coagulated cream and easy to make) and punchy flavoured berries and currants. I used blueberries and strawberries but also added white and red currants, because I had some fruiting in pots in my garden. I also wanted to have a slightly tart contrast to the sweeter berries.

Sponge cake with mascarpone cream and berries 

Let's eat cake!!

Sponge cake 
The trick to getting a sponge to be light, rise and hold its shape is mostly in the beating of the eggs. I've tried a number of different recipes and techniques but this is the one I favour. I'm not even sure where I got it from. I made just one sponge cake and then halved it, to add the filling. Alternatively, you can make two smaller cakes. 

6 free range eggs, at room temperature 

185g/6.5oz caster/superfine sugar*

165g/6oz all purpose flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract, or use caster sugar* that has been stored with vanilla beans in it

Zest of one lemon 

 1.  Lightly butter a springform tin or other cake tin/s and line with baking paper. Pre-heat the oven to 170C/340F.

 2.  Starting on low speed, whisk the eggs with the sugar until well combined.

3.  Turn up the speed to medium and continue whisking for several minutes until thick and creamy, and any bubbles have reduced to a very small size.

4.  Add the lemon zest and vanilla and continue whisking until the mixture is glossy and falls in ribbons. Sieve the flour onto a sheet of baking paper and then pour half into the creamed mixture.  

5.  Very gently fold in with a spatula until all the flour is incorporated. Repeat with the other half. Pour gently into the prepared cake tin/s.

6.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or 20 to 25 minutes if you are using two cake tins. 

I made the mascarpone in the morning and it was ready in the afternoon.

1.  Heat 300ml/10.5fl oz of pouring cream/single cream (35% milk fat) in a saucepan and bring to a simmer.

2.  Add 3/4 tablespoon of fresh strained lemon juice and cook for 1 minute, stirring over medium heat. 

3.  Remove from the heat and cool completely. 

4.  Pour into a muslin-lined strainer that is perched over a bowl, to drain. Refrigerate for several hours. Discard the liquid.

Mascarpone and cream 

1.  Use a spatula to gently mix together 300ml/10.5fl oz of mascarpone with 300ml/10.5fl oz of pure cream that has been lightly whipped. 

2. Fold in 2 tablespoons of sifted icing/powdered sugar and the seeds of one vanilla bean. 

 Blackcurrant spread 

This adds an intensely rich, sweet flavour to the dessert in contrast to the berries and tangy currants.

Gently warm half a cup of blackcurrant jam (I used a jam full of whole blackcurrants...yum!) until it melts. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

Add two tablespoons of Crème de Cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) and mix to a spreadable consistency. Its deep, concentrated flavour is an important element in this dessert. 

Mixed berries 
Mix together a selection of in-season, unsweetened berries/currants of your choice. Slice any larger berries. 

Assembling the sponge
Spread the bottom half of the cake with the blackcurrant spread. Add a thick layer of mascarpone cream and then a generous layer of mixed berries. 

Sandwich with the other half of the cake and then cover the entire cake with the remaining mascarpone cream. Heap all the remaining berries into a generous mound on top of the cake. Simple but gorgeous! Refrigerate, then take out 20 minutes before serving.

Cut into big, fat generous slices! There's a wonderful explosion of flavour contrasts in this dessert.

What was interesting for me about this episode in the Queen Charlotte Islands, were the revelations about the Canadian artist, Emily Carr. It was amazing how she ventured alone into the wilderness and expressed her responses to it, the ancient forests, and the First Nation people in Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), with a unique 'voice'. The stories she had to tell through her works were powerful, persuasive and inspirational.
... Carr, the woman who had captured Canada’s shame, not by painting the displaced, broken people, but by painting their glory. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.383)
She worked mostly in isolation and with great originality, developing a modernistic, boldly coloured style with simplified forms, that eschewed a literal representation of what she observed and experienced. 

Here is a little background and some of Carr's works across three decades, at a glance.

I like that Clara takes inspiration and strength from Emily Carr's conviction to pursue her art alone and in the face of hostility. It is quite apt at a time when Clara is feeling cast out in the wilderness. And it's a neat connection when Clara gets another opportunity to exhibit following a chance meeting with Therese Brunel at Emily Carr's statue in Montreal. 

Further research of Emily Carr has opened up, for me, a fascinating journey into Canadian modernist painting in the first three decades of the 20th century. I’ve particularly engaged with those works inspired by the Canadian landscape and rural life, innovative in their style and 'language', and alive with the richness and boldness of their colour, and unique and compelling sense of Canadian identity. 

I'm impressed, and even more so since having recently viewed quite a selection of these works, including those of the leading Quebecois artists at that time, in the Musée Des Beaux-Arts Montreal! Wonderful!!

And I'm reminded of the power of stories, to inspire, provide us with new connections and understandings, and broaden our outlook...and just how transformative they can be. 

Thank you Louise Penny.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Salad and Little Lies

by Amy

“You didn’t recognize him?” asked Clara as she sliced some fresh bread from Sarah’s Boulangerie.
There was only one “him” Myrna’s friend could be talking about. Myrna shook her head and sliced tomatoes into the salad, then turned to the shallots, all freshly picked from Peter and Clara’s vegetable garden.”

When we talked about comfort food I mentioned how much I love bread. I make my own bread, but I buy bread, too. Bakeries are dangerous places.  I’ve stood at the counter eating fresh warm bread while preparing a meal…  I’ve stood at the kitchen counter eating warm bread way before mealtime just because the bread was there, it was warm… 

“She picked up a slice of baguette and chewed on it. The bread was warm, soft and fragrant. The outer crust was crispy.“For God’s sake,” said Clara, waving the knife at the half eaten bread in Myrna’s hand.”“Want some?” Myrna offered her a piece.The two women stood at the counter eating fresh warm bread…”

I didn’t make these baguettes. Unlike Libby, my culinary expertise should be rated as beginner level. Until I started to write this post it hadn’t even occurred to me to make the baguettes. I might try to eventually. I like baking bread. No one (not even Gabri & Olivier) make their own baguettes in the series. So I bought mine from the local bakery like everyone else does!

The Brutal Telling might be my favorite book of the series. Not because of the murder. Nor is it because of the mystery. I was squirming most of the way through the book because I spent most of the story imagining how Olivier felt.

If the first victim of war was the truth, some of the first victims of a murder investigation were people’s lies. The lies they told themselves, the lies they told each other. The little lies that allowed them to get out of bed on cold, dark mornings.”

I winced when I read that. It’s not that I’m guilty of murder. It’s that I’m guilty of lying to myself. I suppose we all are.

“The police were at the door. Soon they’d be in their homes, in their kitchens and bedrooms. In their heads.”

I think it was when reading this book that I was truly struck by Louise Penny’s writing. I think her genius is that she’s actually a philosopher disguised as a mystery writer.

“Stories have a strange power of attraction. When we tell stories, we touch hearts. If we talk about theories or speak about ideas, the mind may assimilate them but the heart remains untouched.” (Jean Vanier - BECOMING HUMAN)

Olivier’s story is particularly touching. We all have “versions” of our lives, little lies we tell ourselves. This is a recurring theme in these books. “Lies are the first victims of murder investigations”. This is said more than once. They’re usually innocent lies. They can be coping strategies - more like self delusion than a lie. They can be very useful tools for surviving in the world.

Your mother’s kisses healed your scraped knees. It didn’t hurt when they called you names. If you press the snooze button just one more time you won’t be late. You didn’t even want the “whatever it was” you couldn’t afford. That extra piece of chocolate won’t make a difference. You don’t mind that your birthday was forgotten. You’re not jealous of the friend who effortlessly managed what you’ve been striving for years to do. You’re not afraid of heights. The airplane won’t crash today. Nothing bad will ever happen to anyone in your family. You’re not really sick, you can manage to go to work today. That can never happen to you. It's not your fault. It's not that late. You're not upset. It didn't hurt. You're fine. 

Then there are lies that go beyond coping. The little boy Olivier grew adept at keeping secrets and hiding his true self because he was convinced he wouldn’t be accepted or loved otherwise. Not that he knew unconditional love as a child. He created a character. He acted out this carefully crafted persona all through his life. He became convinced that there was a huge gap between the person inside and the one other people saw.

What he didn’t realize what that his friends knew him. They loved him. They saw the real him. Not that they knew what he had done to the hermit or the extent of his avarice. But they knew the potential for it. Ruth makes that clear. They knew he was greedy. They loved him in spite of it.

Another thing that he didn’t realize is that, in some ways, while the little lies we tell ourselves do not change the truth, they slowly change us. The change can be for the worse. At times it is those little lies that allow us to justify small wrongs and deny our own guilt. That’s when they can become a kind of rot that kills us slowly from the inside out. They change us in awful ways. Beauvoir and his addiction were a fascinating study down a terrible road. I digress… I’ll leave the subject of Beauvoir’s addiction for another post. The change can also mean improvement. Doesn't the saying go fake it till you make it

Olivier’s case was a bit more complex, though. The lies he told and the secrets he felt compelled to keep weren’t as bad as he thought. He was so afraid of being eschewed by his friends and community that he continued to hide the person he believed they could never love. He had no idea. They loved him – although they were all hurt and a bit shocked – even when they believed him to be a murderer. A greedy secretive hoarder of treasures seems so much easier to accept than a murderer.

Although he had that “other side”, the horrible side, the hidden side of himself, the hidden Olivier wasn't the "true" one. It was just one part of the whole. He spent so much time hiding behind a carefully groomed image (a sort of lie he told himself) he didn’t realize that the little (big) lie had slowly become as much a part of him as the needy void he was so keen on hiding from his friends.

I think most of us will agree that while he was greedy, he wasn’t selfish. He was stingy with money and with treasures, but he was generous in his time and kindness. He was frequently the first to see someone’s need and to find a way to help. Many times he does so with ulterior motives, but still… 
Remember the whole storyline with the elderly lady who sold her antiques at a bargain and got Ikea in exchange? She was happy. He might have cheated her, in a way, but they both felt it had been a fair exchange.

It puts me in mind of one of Neil Gaiman’s tumbler posts. Someone asked how he could become a better person. Neil answered that he should fake it. Everyone is horrible at times. None of us are truly altruistic all the time (and probably not even most of the time). Gaiman’s suggestion is to fake it and, eventually, it will become habit. (Here’s the link:

I think Olivier created a lie. He created a character that he could live with and he faked it. He was loved and he loved in return, but he wasn’t free. It took a murder and painful deconstruction of his lie to expose the vulnerable, scarred, frightened man that lived within the groomed exterior. It wasn’t his murder. The investigation, in truth, wasn’t about him. Nor would such full disclosure have become necessary had he been confident enough to tell the truth from the start. But then it was the greed that started the secrecy regarding the hermit, not lack of confidence.

“Myrna and Clara joined Peter at the table and as the women talked Peter thought of the man in charge of the investigation. He was dangerous, Peter knew. Dangerous to whoever had killed that man next door. He wondered whether the murderer knew what sort of man was after him. But Peter was afraid the murderer knew all too well.”

I think Peter’s discomfort in this scene, eating salad and bread, is telling. The characters who most lie to themselves and who are most afraid of being vulnerable and of exposing their souls are the ones who most fear Gamache, even when they are not murderers. Peter, Olivier, Ruth… and it is the unmaskings that have us turning the pages of the Inspector Gamache books.

I find myself reflecting on this idea again and again. In a way, ever since I first read it, this book has never left me. I find myself questioning what lies I tell myself and how harmless, damaging, or maybe even worthy they are. Some of them are useful to help me cope (I absolutely DO need a snooze button and 10 extra minutes before I get up). Some of them help me fake it into becoming the person I would like to be – even when I don’t feel like it (I love running early in the morning! Of course I want to talk about Pokemon and play with LEGOs for the thousandth time!) Others aren’t harmless – to me or others. Those are the ones I want to be brave enough to confront. Olivier’s story tells me that the people who love me don’t need those lies – they can handle the imperfect, vulnerable, and scared parts of me, too.

I had my gardening assistant (8 year old son) help me pick tomatoes from the garden. We also picked lettuce, arugula, mint leaves, and basil. I added chicken cubes which I’d grilled on an open pan earlier the same day. I cubed a Fuji apple and drenched it in the juice of one lime (it keeps it from becoming brown and adds flavor to the salad). 

All quotes, unless otherwise specified, are from THE BRUTAL TELLING, the scene that begins on page 28 of the paperback edition.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Lunch at the Bistro...Secrets and Lies

by Libby

Secrets,said Beauvoir. More secrets. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.223)
The Surete team have gathered at the Bistro for a generous lunch (main course and dessert) as the evidence builds that Olivier is a man who is something of a fiction. Lacoste reveals what she has learned from Olivier's former employers and his estranged father, and it is apparent that his life is shrouded with secrets, including that he has somehow acquired a huge fortune, and bought up much of Three Pines.

And where there are secrets, there are lies. And where there is betrayal of trust, there is loss of a sense of security with what is real, what is true. 

Much of Olivier's life had been built on a foundation of secrets and lies. Residing with kind, thoughtful Olivier was another Olivier who was fearful, secretive, greedy, calculating and vindictive. How else could he have kept the Hermit 'captive' all that time, implicated the Gilberts in the murder, and so profoundly betrayed the trust of Gabri, their friends and their lives together. He had picked up on the trail of lies and greed that the Hermit had brought to Three Pines, and then blazed a trail of his own. 
‘Why didn’t you tell us you knew the Hermit when the body was found?’ ‘I should have, but I thought you might not find the cabin.’ ‘And why would you hope that?’...‘Because there were things in the cabin I wanted. For myself.’ (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.325) 
I think we all have secrets. And we can all, at times, be evasive or lie. Isn't that what we do when we say what we think the other person might want to hear? It might be a case of not wanting to upset someone or worry them, or trying to be kind. Dominique Gilbert lies to her husband about a horse's name. She senses some connection between the difficult, wounded nature and reactions of that beast and her husband. So for her a 'small' lie seems more prudent, kinder, than to tell her husband that the horse is also called Marc!

Sometimes lies can be about avoiding conflict, or fear of disapproval or just because you want to avoid doing something. And for some it's a matter of exaggerating things to 'beat their own drum', in terms of their accomplishments and influence. Lying to themselves, deceiving themselves they are better than others, is part of it. Sadly, Peter Morrow is something of a case in point. 
It was, he liked to tell art critics at his many sold-out vernissages, an allegory for life. ... They ate it up. But this time it hadn’t worked. He’d been unable to see the simple truth. Instead, he’d painted this. When Clara left Peter plopped down in his chair and stared at the bewildering piece of work on his easel and repeated silently to himself, I’m brilliant, I’m brilliant. Then he whispered, so quietly he barely heard it himself, ‘I’m better than Clara.’ (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.242) 
Having secrets can be about protecting ourselves, or to protect others. It can also be a matter of desiring privacy or being guarded, just not wanting to share some things. 
Beauvoir had lied to the Chief. He didn’t do it often, and he had no idea why he’d done it this time. He’d told the Chief he’d thrown them all out, all the stupid words Ruth had tacked onto his door, shoved into his pocket. Given others to give to him. He’d wanted to throw them out, but even more than that he’d wanted to know what they meant. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.496) 
Some secrets we keep completely to ourselves out of guilt or shame, or because they're hidden desires and pleasures. Some can be carried from childhood, as Olivier has done. 
It was about a little boy with secrets. Who became a big boy with secrets. Who became a man. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.446)
Some secrets we are prepared to share with a trusted significant other/s. I guess it depends on the 'secrets' and the connection with the person. Certain trusted girlfriends come to mind, those very few special ones with whom you feel you can 'unload' just about anything...the 'Myrnas' in your life. At its heart is mutual trust and honesty (sometimes brutal). And that can be a wonderful thing.

At this Bistro lunch the team's only distraction, from Olivier's secrets and lies, was the food.
... she looked with envy at the steaming plate of Portobello mushrooms, garlic, basil and Parmesan on top of homemade pasta in front of the Chief. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.222)
The garlic is missing!!
Gamache's lunch choice was mine, too. I have always loved mushrooms and find them hard to resist on a menu. This dish was easy to recreate as there were no secrets about the ingredients! 

My version included frying the mushrooms with white salad onions (that quickly soften) and garlic to make a buttery sauce that clings to the pasta. 

Hand-made pasta ingredients
Fresh homemade pasta is very easy and has a silky finish unlike dried pasta. I used a hand-cranked pasta making machine that rolls out the dough effortlessly. A rolling pin also works. I make pasta with just flour and eggs for a tasty, nutritious result.

Homemade pasta
440g/14oz durum wheat flour or Italian '00' flour
4 to 5 eggs

1.  Make a well in the sifted flour and add 4 of the eggs. 

2.  Mix in with a fork and work through the flour by hand. Add the fifth egg only if the mixture is too dry. It must not be sticky.

3.  Knead and then wrap the dough in plastic wrap and leave on the bench to rest for 30 minutes.

4.  Break off small sections, sprinkle with flour and roll with a rolling pin and then feed through a pasta machine several times (or roll by hand), until the desired thickness and texture is achieved. Cut to shape. I cut it roughly into short ribbons. 

5.  When the mushroom sauce is ready, cook the pasta in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes and drain. Fresh pasta is very quick to cook.

Mushroom sauce
500g/ 1lb 2oz large open portobello/Swiss brown mushrooms, sliced thickly
2 brown shallots
2 to 3 large white salad onions, sliced thinly
8 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus an extra 2 tablespoons
3 tablespoons of unsalted butter
1/2 cup of chicken stock
1/2 cup of dry white wine
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
bunch of fresh basil
shavings of Parmigiana Reggiano

1.  For an intense mushroom flavoured sauce, very slowly sauté a couple of finely chopped portobellos and brown shallots in one tablespoons of unsalted butter and two of extra-virgin olive oil. 

2.  When cooked right down so that maximum flavour is extracted, deglaze the pan with 2 tablespoons of dry Marsala or sherry.

3. Finish with freshly ground black pepper and a little sea salt. Set aside to add to the mushroom sauce later. 

4.  Sauté the sliced mushrooms, salad onions and garlic in 2 tablespoons of butter and 1/4 cup of oil until the mushrooms have browned.

5.  Add the chicken stock and wine and reduce to a saucy consistency. Add the cooked, finely chopped mushroom and shallot mix. Finish with a little sea salt and grinding of black pepper.

6. Generously spoon over freshly cooked pasta. Toss through a cup or two of basil leaves and plenty of Parmigiana Reggiano or other parmesan cheese. Finish with a little drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and another grind of black pepper.

When secrets are revealed and lies uncovered, there comes a loss of trust, and that's something not easily regained. How can you possibly know when someone is telling the truth if they repeatedly lie. Even Olivier recognised this.
‘No, I didn’t kill him.’ But even as Olivier said it he realized the disaster of what he’d done. In lying at every turn he’d made the truth unrecognizable...I didn’t take the last cookie, I didn’t break the fine bone china cup, I didn’t steal the money from your purse. I’m not gay. All lies. All his life. All the time. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.334)
Significantly, The Brutal Telling reveals that secrets and lies abound.
Who had done worse? While Louise Penny asks this question about the Gilberts, Marc and his mother Carole, it could apply to others.
Who had done worse? Carole by lying to her son for years, and telling him his father was dead? Or Marc by moving a dead man down to the bistro, and in one gesture ruining their chances of being accepted in the small community. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.280)
While Peter Morrow jealously guards and keeps his work a secret, the thought of Clara's imminent success fills him with fear and causes him to advise Clara to take a course of action that he knows will most likely be the undoing of her career opportunity. In that moment he breaks any trust that exists between them. It's a defining moment for their relationship. It was not without a battle of conscience.
He’d gone into his studio last night to think, and finally to stop thinking. To clear his mind of the howl that had grown, like something massive approaching. And finally, just before sunrise, he knew what he had to say to Clara. ‘I think you should talk to him.’ (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.355)
Such a betrayal of trust will inevitably be accompanied by guilt, shame, hurt and even misery. We are horrified at Peter's behaviour. But perhaps we are not so horrified with Beauvoir as he withdraws to his basement...we might even be excited about what is emerging? Both are betrayals of trust, but 'who had done worse?'
And he imagined her there. Maddening, passionate, full of life. Filling the empty, quiet corners of his life. With life. And when the case was over he’d slipped the lion into his bag and brought it down here. Where Enid never came. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.497)
Probably the most astounding thing was learning that Olivier was the one behind 'the brutal telling', the stories that inspired the Hermit's carvings. Ironically, what emerged was the truth of those stories.
But what Olivier hadn’t appreciated was that his stories were actually true. An allegory, yes. But no less real for that. A mountain of misery was approaching. And growing with each new lie, each new tale. A Hungry Ghost. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.491)

Enough! Back to that lunch!
‘Who’ll share a profiterole with me?’ asked Beauvoir. They’d have to solve this case soon or he’d need a whole new wardrobe. ‘I will,’ said Lacoste. The pastries filled with ice cream and covered in warm chocolate sauce arrived. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.222)

Well I'm with Lacoste, resisting a whole dessert but happy to share one, which somehow always seems less indulgent (Is this a case of lying to yourself?)! I love to make icecream so it was no chore thinking of one that would go with the choux pastry puffs and warm chocolate sauce. I love honey and orange together and thought that a subtle spicy note might be a welcome addition.

Profiteroles with orange, honey and star anise icecream with warm chocolate sauce
The icecream recipe is an adaption of the one in the August 31 post, In Search of a Licorice Pipe.

Icecream ingredients
For this recipe the cream and milk are infused with 2 tablespoons of grated orange rind that has been pounded with a teaspoon of sugar, and seven star anise.

Infusing the cream/milk with grated orange and star anise
The egg yolks are creamed with two thirds of a cup of honey (instead of sugar) until thick and light.

The cream/milk infusion is added to this and cooked while stirring over low heat for 10 minutes.

The cooled custard is best refrigerated overnight, and churned the next day once the star anise have been removed. I add 2 tablespoons of Cointreau in the final 5 minutes of churning. This very creamy icecream has a subtle fragrance to it that works perfectly in this dessert. And it can be made well ahead of time.

Choux puffs
These crispy creations provide a nice texture contrast to the icecream and sauce.

Choux puffs' ingredients

1 cup of water
85g/3oz unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon of sugar
a pinch of salt
1 cup of all purpose flour, sifted
4 eggs, at room temperature

1.  Heat the water, butter, sugar and salt in a saucepan until the butter is melted and then bring to the boil.

2.  Remove from the heat and immediately add all the flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until combined. Return to a moderate heat and stir continuously until the dough forms a ball.

3.  Remove from the heat and beat in one egg until it is completely absorbed. Add each of the other eggs, one at a time, in the same way. This is a great workout for your arm and shoulder.

4.  Allow the mixture to cool for a few minutes before placing spoonfuls, about the size of an egg, onto a baking sheet covered with baking paper. Leave space between them for puffing.

5.  Bake in an oven that has been pre-heated to 220C/425F for 25-30 minutes, depending on the size.

6.  When puffed and golden brown, remove from the oven and place a small slit in the side of each puff. Return to the turned off oven and leave for 10-15 minutes with the door open. This helps to dry out their centres.

7.  Cool on a wire rack.

Warm chocolate sauce
With a dessert like this it's important not to skimp on the sauce. It needs to be rich, thick, luscious and chocolatey without being sickly sweet. This sauce works! The bittersweet chocolate makes all the difference.

Chocolate sauce ingredients
125g/4.5oz bittersweet chocolate (70% cocoa mass), cut into small pieces or grated
1 cup of pouring cream (pure cream with 35% fat content, also known as single cream)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon honey

Place all ingredients into a small saucepan and gently heat. Stir until fully melted and combined. Keep warm for serving. 
Assembling the profiteroles 
Cut the choux puffs in half. Spoon out and discard any moist pastry still inside the puffs.
Fill with quenelles of the honey, orange and star anise icecream. Sandwich with the top of the puff and pour over warm chocolate sauce. Worth the calories!!

Gamache regretted not ordering some himself. He watched, mesmerized, as Beauvoir and Lacoste took spoonfuls of the now melting ice cream mixed with pastry and the warm, dark chocolate. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.222)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Comfort Food: Chili Sin Carne

 by Amy

’Oh, I wanted to surprise you,’ said Ben, coming over to hug Clara. ‘Chili con carne.’
‘My favorite comfort food.’

Comfort food. It’s actually a widespread concept (yes, I googled it), but the words to describe it vary from culture to culture. In Portuguese, for instance, it translates into “a taste of childhood”, which evokes nostalgia for or memories of better or happier times. I do realize not all childhood memories are good ones, but the idea of remembering good times makes sense.

I wouldn’t have listed chili – with or without meat – on my own list of comfort food. I’d include bread. Fresh warm bread. Maybe chocolate. Homemade warm cookies, definitely. Have I mentioned fresh bread?

Chili con carne appears twice in STILL LIFE and it is described both times as comfort food.  

In the second appearance, the dish is just one of many in another potluck dinner at the Morrow’s home. They have chili con carne as well as casseroles, shepherd´s pie, and plenty of wine. They also have cashews and a bag full of junk food and candy – Halloween-style comfort food, I guess. Clara is comforted by the meal where she is surrounded by familiar faces, indulges in the guilty pleasure of candy before dinner, and breathes in the homey smells coming from the kitchen.

There is a bit of foreshadowing since the uncomfortable part of the meal is when Clara realizes how Peter feels – and predicts how he’ll behave - when she acts on her own. I don’t think I truly caught this hint as to his behavior – or didn’t give it enough importance – when I first read the book.

Animated and excited she’d gabbled on about her box and the woods and the exhilarating climb up the ladder to the blind. But her wall of words hid from her a growing quietude. She failed to notice his silence, his distance, until it was too late and he’d retreated all the way to his icy island. She hated that place. From it he stood and stared, judged and lobbed shards of sarcasm.”

But let’s go back to the first chili meal. Ben tried to find the perfect recipe to appease Clara. What he failed to realize is that part of the comfort in food comes from the way the tastes and smells and even the surroundings trigger memories of better – or safer, or maybe just familiar – places and times.

The Morrows go to dinner and probably expect to eat something bought - maybe even from the Bistrô. We’re told in a previous scene that Ben doesn’t cook. He’s made an exception this time, though. He resurrected one of his mother’s old cookbooks and has followed the instructions in order to create what he believes will be the perfect answer to Clara’s grief: Chili con carne.

‘I’ve never made it before but I have some of my mother’s recipe books and found it in The Joy of Cooking. It won’t bring Jane back, but it might ease the pain.’

Clara walks into the home expecting to smell stinky dog and old books. Instead, she's overwhelmed by the aroma of homemade cooking. You’d think it would be an improvement, right? Apparently it wasn’t. She wanted the old and familiar smells…

Grief is partly about the loss of predictable patterns and interactions in life. You are aware of changes and have to find a way to fill the new gaps in your life. That’s probably why Peter’s mug of Earl Grey Tea was a better choice for comfort. To borrow a friend’s expression, what she needed was for everything to be “nicely normal”. Ben's unforeseeable behavior and the unusual settings were jarring.

“Clara looked at the huge cookbook open on the counter, and felt revolted. It had come from that house. Timmer’s place.The home that repulsed love and laughter and welcomed snakes and mice. She wanted nothing to do with it, and she realized her revulsion stretched even to objects that had come from there.”

Aside from the unfamiliarity of Ben’s cooking, Clara is discomfited by the fact that the cookbook and, indirectly, the recipe and even maybe the meal are contaminated by the place they came from. The theme isn’t explored in depth in this first book, but it is brilliantly discussed in the latest book – THE NATURE OF THE BEAST. Is something evil because its creator is evil? Can you separate the creation from the creator?

“She took a deep breath and inhaled garlic and onions and frying mince and other calming smells. Nellie must have cleaned recently because there was the fresh aroma of detergents. Cleanliness. Clara felt better and knew that Ben was her friend too, not just Peter’s. And that she wasn’t alone, unless she chose to be. She also knew Daisy could best sautéed garlic any day and her smell would re-emerge triumphant.”

In the end, Clara isn’t comforted by the meal. She’s comforted by the thought that familiarity will return and that the musty odor of old books and Daisy's stink would eventually override detergent and home cooking.

And we’re back to the concept of comfort food. Familiarity is probably more important than the taste itself. Likely there are things that are tastier, better for you, and even more presentable. But comfort foods – like old shoes, baggy pajamas, and books that have been read so many times they’re full of little marks and folded tips and pages that are starting to fall out – are about familiarity and the idea that essential things have not changed.

What's your comfort food?!

I decided to make a vegetarian version of this meal.

If any of you are in any way intimidated by Libby’s sophisticated cooking and presentations (I am), this is the polar opposite. I actually think Ruth could have easily made and served this for dinner instead of her elaborate gummy bear-velveeta-cracker dishes. It's easy to make. You just kind of add it all in and let it simmer for awhile... and you're done.

This recipe is based on one I found in Jamie Oliver’s website.  The link is at the end of the post. I tweaked it a bit.

  •           2 onions
  •           3 to 5 cloves of garlic
  •           1 medium leek (I LOVE leeks, so I actually used a large one)
  •           1 long fresh red chilli (I know some people add seeds, I used two, but removed the seeds)
  •           1 yellow pepper (this wasn’t in the original recipe, but I had some and added them “just because”)
  •           2 Tablespoons of ground coriander (The first time I made it I used two, but the other times I only used 1 TBS. It was enough for me)
  •           2 TBS smoked paprika (this was in the original recipe but I couldn’t find it ANYWHERE here and finally gave up. I’m adding it to the recipe here because I wish I had found it)
  •           ½ cinnamon stick or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  •           2 Tablespoons dried oregano
  •           1 whole nutmeg for grating or ½ teaspoon powdered nutmeg
  •           2 tablespoons tomato purée
  •           500g dried lentils (the original calls for 250g of green and 250g red lentils – I only had green)
  •           800g red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  •           800g of black beans, drained and rinsed (truth be told, I’ve made this recipe with all kinds of beans – canned, just cooked, brown, black, red, you name it. It works no matter which beans you use)
  •           2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
  •           1.2 liters of vegetable stock (homemade, in cubes or store-bought)
  •           Salt (I didn’t use any – there was enough in the vegetable stock)
  •           Black pepper, freshly ground (my husband doesn’t enjoy black pepper, so I rarely use it)

How to

Finely chop onions, garlic and leeks. Also chop the chili – with or without seeds. Fry in the olive oil until softened. Add the spices. Fry for another 2 minutes. The original recipe says to add a splash of water if it starts getting dry, but I think you can go ahead and just add the tomato purée if you reach that point. Cook for another two minutes. Then basically you just pour everything else in: lentils (dry), beans (cooked and drained or drained from a tin), and chopped tomatoes. Add the stock. Bring it all to a boil, then reduce the heat and leave it there for at least an hour. Stir a few times, and then season however you like it. I didn’t think salt was necessary because the vegetable stock I used already had salt.

And you’re done. But you’ll have enough chili for an army. The first time, I made a full recipe and regretted it. Then I made ½ a recipe and it´s still a good amount. My husband didn’t care for it (even though I added meat to his) and my son doesn’t much like beans at the best of times. It doesn’t qualify as comfort food in my house! But I thought it was yummy and I have small portions frozen, so I can easily have a quick meal whenever I want to!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Dinner at Ruth's...Reinterpreted!

by Libby
‘I left a note for you,’ said Gabri. ‘Since the bistro’s closed we’re all going out for dinner and you’re invited.’ ‘Peter and Clara’s again?’ asked Gamache. ‘No. Ruth,’ said Gabri and was rewarded with their stunned looks. He’d have thought someone had drawn a gun on the two large Sûreté officers. Chief Inspector Gamache looked surprised but Beauvoir looked afraid. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.159)
Ruth's appetisers, reinterpreted
Ruth's main course, reinterpreted

Dinner at Ruth's? The surprise and trepidation that Gamache and Beauvoir experience is rightly deserved. Jean-Guy finds it prudent not to attend. Ruth is far too unsettling for him. She has become something of a nemesis! But he doesn't entirely miss out. This is the start of Ruth feeding him a steady diet of couplets of verse, that are out of order and don't rhyme. Which is bound to do his head in! 

In fact she does everyone's head in at the dinner with her seemingly bizarre food choices and 'kitsch' theatricals; Ruth is decked out and channelling genteel Britishness while serving food of dubious 'taste' and origin, Rosa the duck wears a dress! Little wonder that the Three Pines' friends are feeling unnerved. 
‘For pity’s sake, did you bring your gun?’...‘They’re dangerous. Why do you want it?’ ‘So you can shoot her. She’s trying to kill us.’ Myrna grabbed Gamache’s sleeve and pointed to Ruth who was circulating among her guests wearing a frilly apron and carrying a bright orange plastic tray. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.160) 
The humour in this meal is wonderfully orchestrated, and contrasts with the pathos of Olivier's predicament. And we get to glimpse Ruth without a sting, but with a heart that has great capacity for kindness when she offers whispered support to Olivier. 
‘Give it time. It’ll be all right, you know that, don’t you?’ (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.73) 

In our quest to recreate the food in the Louise Penny series, this was one meal that begged for reinterpretation. Well, there are standards! Though I did admire Ruth's unique conception of the main course...putting all the things she liked into one bowl! In the end, I took Ruth's menu and rejigged the ingredients into a more 'palatable' and slightly more sophisticated version.

Ruth's menu -- Reinterpreted menu 

Salteen crackers with peanut butter -- Spicy peanut dip with crudités and crackers 
Celery sticks stuffed with Velveeta -- Celery sticks with Roquefort, caramelised onion and walnuts
Balls (lard?) covered with seeds -- Fried Haloumi cheese with sesame seeds and coriander 
Olives stuffed with canned mandarin orange -- Green olives with lemon and coriander 

Main course 
Canned peaches, bacon, cheese, Gummi Bears, Scotch -- Apple, pear and fennel salad, smoked salmon, quark cheese, with Gummi Bears and Scotch on the side

Gamache could see salteen crackers sliding around...smeared with brown stuff he hoped was peanut butter. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.160) 
A spicy peanut dip was my version of this appetiser. It is gently spiced and is a flavoursome accompaniment to crudités and crackers.

200g/7oz of natural (no additives) crunchy, peanut butter
1 large garlic clove, finely sliced
2 heaped tablespoons of caramelised onion
1 teaspoon of dried chilli flakes
1 teaspoon of Asian shrimp paste, or mild red curry paste
1 and a half tbls of soy sauce
1 and a half tbls of lemon juice
1 teaspoon raw sugar
peanut oil, or other

1.  Fry the slices of garlic in a little oil over medium heat until golden. Drain on kitchen paper.
2. Gently fry the chilli flakes until crisp.
3. Gently heat a quarter cup of oil and fry shrimp paste, soy sauce, lemon juice and sugar.
4.  Remove from the heat and mix in the peanut butter, crumbled garlic slices, caramelised onion and chilli flakes. Taste and adjust the balance of flavours if necessary.
5. Serve with crudités and crackers.

Ruth had put down the peanut-buttered crackers and was now offering celery sticks stuffed with Velveeta. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.161) 
I had never heard of Velveeta processed cheese until reading this book. I decided to use a cheese that marries beautifully with celery, Roquefort. Now if this blue cheese is not really your thing you might be surprised at the pleasing flavours when it's mixed with certain other ingredients into a spread.
Caramelising onion, sauteing walnuts

The piquancy of the cheese is balanced with the sweet savouriness of caramelised onion, creme fraiche (for a luscious texture),  sautéed walnuts (for their crunch and tangy flavour) and black pepper. Spread onto tender stalks from the heart of the celery. 

‘Would you like one?’ Clara offered him a ball covered with what looked like seeds. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.161) 

Ruth's seed balls seemed like something that might be more fitting for birds. This version is definitely for human consumption. 

Haloumi cheese (or another cheese that can be fried) is cut into bite-sized pieces, coated with a mixture of sesame seeds, ground coriander seeds and a little all purpose flour and fried in extra virgin olive oil until golden brown. 

Finished with a generous squeeze of lemon juice before leaving the pan, the haloumi is then drained on kitchen paper before being served warm. It pairs nicely with citrus-flavoured olives.

‘May I help?’ Gamache asked from the door. ‘Well, aren’t you a love.’ Gamache winced, expecting her to throw a cleaver after that. But she just smiled and handed him a plate of olives, each stuffed with a section of canned mandarin orange. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.162)
Now Ruth almost has something going here, pairing olives with citrus. Black olives mixed with a little grated orange rind, chopped rosemary, crushed garlic, black pepper and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil are delicious.

In this instance though, I chose big green olives and combined them with the juice and some fine slivers of lemon, crushed coriander seeds and garlic, and extra-virgin olive oil. Served with the fried Haloumi they are quite delicious.

‘Hi ho, dinner everyone,’ sang Ruth...Gamache looked at the contents of his bowl. He could make out canned peaches, bacon, cheese and Gummi Bears. ‘They’re all the things I love,’ said Ruth, smiling...‘Scotch?’ Ruth asked. ‘Please.’ Six glasses were thrust forward and Ruth poured each a Scotch, into their dinners. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.164,165) 
Ruth's main course reinterpreted
Perhaps Ruth's instincts for serving certain foods together wasn't completely off the mark.  Just a little fine tuning was needed, including Gummi Bears and Scotch being kept STRICTLY on the side!

Fruit and smoked meats actually work well together, the sweet acidity of one balancing with the salty smokiness of the other. The creamy texture of cheese adds a nice contrast. I chose to work with apples, pears, smoked salmon (smoked chicken or bacon would work well too) and quark (though another curd cheese could be used, or even cream cheese as a richer alternative).

Quite simply, a salad of very finely sliced apples, pears and fennel bulb and fresh herbs (mint, watercress, fennel, rocket/arugula), dressed with a vinaigrette of extra virgin olive oil, apple cider vinegar, Dijon mustard and crushed garlic accompanied fine slices of smoked salmon, generous dobs of quark, watercress sprigs and more vinaigrette. It's a good balance of flavours and textures.

What a wonderful character Louise Penny has created in Ruth. She perceives more deeply than most, if her razor-sharp insights are any indication. The foreshadowing in her haunting poetry makes her something of a seer. When Olivier comes to Ruth and confesses all that he has done over the years, she wants to comfort him but in that moment, in the face of his greed and duplicity, and with a striking sense of inevitability, she is driven to write a foreboding verse that speaks not only of losing Rosa but I think, Olivier too.
She rose up into the air and the jilted earth let out a sigh. She rose up past telephone poles and rooftops of houses where the earthbound hid. She rose up but remembered to politely wave goodbye … (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.353)
Ruth understands 'damaged' and that allows her to recognise it, or see its potential in others. Is this what motivates her interest in, and 'hounding' of Beauvoir? Does she recognise something of herself? She senses his needs before he is conscious of them himself. What a slow and astounding 'reveal' as Beauvoir resists and then struggles with making sense of the couplets with which she plies him. Hilariously, just when he hoped he had received the last of them... 'What upset him the most was the comma. It meant there was more.' 

As Jean-Guy wrestles with the meaning and order of Ruth's verses, feelings emerge that had been tucked away; prised out now with the help of a stuffed lion, an old Weaver's tune and wishful thinking of someone who will '...lick you clean of fever, and pick your soul up gently by the nape of the neck and caress you into darkness and paradise.' 

Louise Penny's The Brutal Telling is a complex work. It is a book full of revelations and life-changing loss through a series of brutal tellings, more than at first meet the eye: the artist Emily Carr experienced one at the hands of her father; the fearsome story that Olivier, motivated by his greed, told the hermit; Clara's struggle with, and eventual challenge of the gallery owner Fortin for his homophobic behaviour, and so forfeiting her opportunity to exhibit; Peter, wrestling with himself on a pathway to dissolution and the horrible truth that the career he knew as an artist is over, as Clara's ascends; Ruth's couplets of verse to Beauvoir, foreshadowing tribulations to be faced and an avenue to succour; Ruth's haunting farewell to Rosa and Olivier; Gamache's eventual arrest of Olivier. 
It was time for his own brutal telling. He stood. ‘Olivier Brulé,’ said Chief Inspector Gamache, his voice weary and his face grim, ‘I’m arresting you on a charge of murder.’ (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.480)
And at the heart of all the lies and justifications, shame, fear and guilt is conscience and the resounding impact it has when it falters or is lost; when greed, jealousy, the need for recognition and success, and even indifference (am I sparing a thought for Enid here), prevail. It's a precarious balance between motives, desires and the dictates of conscience.
But there was no hiding from Conscience...Which was why, Gamache knew, it was vital to be aware of actions in the present. Because the present became the past, and the past grew. And got up, and followed you. (The Brutal Telling, Kindle, p.502)
This book certainly gave me pause.

And how many of us finished it, more than just a little astounded, with the echoes of our voices screaming in our heads, "Oh no, Olivier!" ... "Jean-Guy, Annie, aaah!!