Sunday, November 5, 2017

How to Cook a Moose

Kate Christensen’s How to Cook a Moose isn’t the type of book I may have bought for myself, so I consider myself fortunate that my mom has been following this blog and knows my love for MFK Fisher’s work. As with Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, Christensen’s book offers practical advice and a series of anecdotes that are both humorous and thoughtful. Equal parts how to Cook a Wolf; Eat, Pray, Love; and A Year in Provence, the book offers a delightful selection of recipes. Some are classics, like traditional New England chowder and the super basic lobster and steamers, with a recipe for Thermidor thrown in for good measure. 

The book shines when Christensen discusses the environmental impact on food with climate change as well as the agricultural industry. Her advice on farmers markets, gardening, and CSA programs rings especially important in view of Fisher’s advice on cooking and eating well in the lean times of WWII. Much like my own style, the author finds solace in cooking, as a means to destress and work through writer’s block, and improvisation is a key aspect of finding that solace. I love wandering the kitchen, seeking the perfect spices or additions that will enhance a dish. It’s a meditative process that I find soothing. 

The first recipe I chose to make was harissa haddock with chorizo. It was a tough choice. Her “Down East Duck” with its intriguing glaze of rhubarb, blueberries, thyme, maple syrup, cognac, ginger, and red wine is definitely second on my list. Pan fried with Yukon potatoes, it also features julienned zucchini poached in butter and chicken stock. The moose bourguignon and chicken thighs with mustard sauce and black trumpet mushrooms are also eye-catching. There are also wonderful historical details, such as how the oyster business on the Daramiscotta River rebounded after overfishing, and how the first cannery was built in Eastport, Maine, in 1843, to better be able to export Maine’s seafood delicacies around the world. In true MFK Fisher style, Christensen writes precise and insightful essays on what Maine is known for: lobster, blueberries, and oysters, and even as someone whose entire family came from Maine, I found I learned a lot. 

The harissa haddock was a simple weeknight dish that I enjoyed sharing with friends. My version came out much more stew-like than the recipe described, but I had made some modifications and instead of a dry harissa rub, I used some pre-prepared sauce from a local market. The result was a bright range of flavors—the lemon, red wine, and leeks were accented with the smoky chorizo, but the haddock was the star of the show. A side of garlicky swiss chard was a nice complement. 

While the book occasionally takes on an anthropological tone observing life in Maine, overall, How to Cook a Moose is a lovely culinary memoir that I’m glad shares a shelf with my MFK Fisher collection. I look forward to going through each recipe, one by one, and putting my own locally sustainable spin on them. 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Bread of Dreams

Historical fiction often brings to mind stylized romance novels set against a picturesque backdrop, usually an account of a well-known noble’s life—not that they don’t have merit, but how many novelizations are there about Elizabeth I or Cleopatra? And of course we can’t forget the rags-to-riches story of a commoner who rises in society through a combination of cleverness and good looks (almost always humble, too!). Granted, readers often seek to be swept away in an escapist fantasy, but what about the stories hidden in the vast swaths of the population that are usually consigned to a sea of extras—the angry and mocking mob or the admiring crowd in the presence of gentle nobles—you know, the royal wedding of the unlikely-but-charming couple?

In the words of Piero Camporesi, author of Bread of Dreams, “The voices of the wretched, the miserable and alienated, weak and plaintive, have never found citizenship in the beautiful palace that is literary history.” He covers quite a bit in this slender volume, and it is an intense read that is not for the squeamish. He discusses hallucinations caused by the scarcity of food and the mold in the ingredients they did have. Ergot, a fungus found in rye and other grains, is now understood as being the agent causing mass hysteria during the time of the Salem witch trials. Charlatans profited from miraculous cures that were more deadly than the ailments people were suffering from, and criminal minds among the upper classes orchestrated mass-killings via poisoning when they deemed the populous out of control. Fraught with fear of the idle poor, substances such as opiates were also used because it was “better to have them in a torpor than let them riot.”

Camporesi offers insight into cures that were developed: the pills of Avicenna, globuli contra famem, as they were known, were balls of ground almonds, beef fat, oil of violets, and marshmallow root used as the basest form of sustenance in times of famine. Most remedies had a magical connection and were based on spiritual beliefs. In these “collective journeys into illusion,” people feared the night as though it was another world where werewolves and other monsters hunted. In dark times, the author notes, falsely comforting proverbs and generalizations of time kept a timelessness about peasant populations. Time was measured in phrases such as “a year of hunger,” or “the longest day.” Camporesi explores the sociological impact of famine as well. Populations living in remote and mountainous areas sought out cities in difficult times, and wandering sages, charlatans, and storytellers became well-known figures that have become archetypal in literature and art.

One of the reasons why this book struck me so profoundly was that as an author, I felt as though I had stumbled across a trove of inspiration for worldbuilding. It doesn’t even need to be confined to the place and era of the book’s focus, which happened to be medieval Italy. Historical fiction, epic fantasy, sci fi—it’s an opportunity to make the world you’re creating more realistic. Gems like this book help me think not only deeper, but go beyond the conventions of accepted style and format. A nonconformist at heart, I’ve always bristled when editors justify a bit of feedback with, “Well, all novels do that these days.” It’s not that I don’t want the feedback, but please give me more than providing a fixed formula to follow if I want to be called a “real” author. It’s what I love about the indie publishing movement: new points of view from a much more inclusive community of artists who can teach us all something. It can shed a new light on current political challenges or share some sense of connection with the past—the common humanity always in the biggest numbers but with the least amount of resources. Knowing what people turned to in times of scarcity could add interesting nuances to a story, whether if it’s a tale told to children by the hearth, or an actual feature of the plot.

Bread of Dreams occupies a portion of my personal library where I keep inspiration for worldbuilding. It shares a shelf with history books ranging from ancient times in the Mediterranean to accounts of seafaring tactics used by pirates in the 1700s. It gave me a lot to think about in terms of portraying food in writing—the lack of access to food is equally important.  

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Medieval Breakfast for the Dark Lady of Doona

“You must be the beloved cook I’ve heard so much about,” I said. 
She had a lilting laugh. “Ah, these men, they know no better. They’re just grateful for a hot meal.” Her gentle demeanor reminded me of my daughter. I wondered what Margaret must have thought sometimes when Carraigahowley Castle was overrun with men from my fleet.  
“Well, you have an admirer in me, too,” I said. I glanced with interest at the stone griddle she placed before the fire. “What are you making?”  
“Now that everyone has eaten, I’m having my own breakfast. Care to join me for some oatcakes and leeks?” She smiled as she reached for a wooden bowl.  
Dark Lady of Doona 

Back in my early blogging days circa 2010, I realized I had an opportunity to combine several interests on one platform. This was also the early days of the indie publishing movement—Smashwords was an innovative rising star that put cost-saving, professional tools in the hands of authors. Etiquette for social media and, indie book reviews, and online book tours was a common topic of debate, and it quickly became the focus of a number of newly formed indie author organizations.   

Some vestiges of those early days remain, but indie authors have even more sophisticated resources to do their research, manage their manuscripts, create professional-looking graphics, and market their work. The style and content of my own blogs have changed over time. A series about how food is portrayed in historical fiction was buried deep in my former, catch-all blog under the name How Do They Feast?, has finally branched onto its ownhere on Savored Words. After reviewing some of the original posts in the series, I'm redoing some of them with a fresh set of photos and a new look at the recipes.  

Researching culinary history has its challenges, and with the Dark Lady of Doona, those challenges were amplified by a lack of credible sources on the pirate queen's life. Much of what is known about her is sensationalized—either by her contemporaries or those who mythologized her over the centuries. While I had access to excellent books that covered everyday life in the 1500s, there was still a lot of guessing on my part as a writer, and I wanted it to be as realistic as it could be, while acknowledging the more sensational aspects of Granía's character.  

When I started writing Dark Lady of Doona, I wanted food to feature in it more prominently than in my first novel. I’ve become rather attached to the practice of making recipes that would have been familiar to the characters in my stories. It’s a wonderful way to connect with the characters, and my hope is that my delving into the details about cooking, that readers will be able to relate more closely to the time and place being described in the story. While researching the Tudor era, I came upon a recipe for oatcakes. Knowing the popularity of leeks and cheese, I created a feast of a breakfast for a hungry female captain who commands her own fleet. As Granía O’Malley stops in the Hebrides to hire mercenaries to join her husband’s army, she enjoys oatcakes topped with buttered leeks. I’ve altered the recipe somewhat here, based on numerous experiments. And the addition of the spicy sausage patties? Well, they happen to be a favorite of my husband, and they go well with the meal. It’s a fabulous brunch to prepare on a cold, rainy morning, and keep an eye to the sea for any galleons that may pass by!  

Oatcakes topped with herbed goat cheese and leeks 

Goat cheese spread 
Ingredients 8 oz. goat cheese 1 to 1½ tsp. Herbes de Provence (or to taste) Zest and juice of one lemon 

Blend in food processor, keep at room temperature until serving time.  

Braised Leeks 
Ingredients 6 leeks, thoroughly rinsed and cut into small rings half stick butter 3/4 cup chicken broth 1½ tsp. Herbes de Provence 

Melt butter in deep skillet, add leeks and cook over medium heat for five minutes, until they soften. Add broth and Herbes de Provence, and braise, stirring occasionally as it reduces, for about fifteen minutes, until sauce thickens and leeks are soft.  

1 1/2 cups steel-cut oats 1 cup flour 1/2 cup sugar 1/2 tsp. baking soda 1/4 tsp. salt 1/2 cup chilled vegetable shortening, cut into pieces 1/4 cup buttermilk 

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease large baking sheet with butter. In large mixing bowl, mix oats, flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt. Add shortening and mix using hands until mixture is coarse and well-blended. Add buttermilk and stir dough.  Make large-cookie sized rounds and place on baking sheet.  

Bake oatcakes until golden, for about 15 minutes, turning once midway through.  

Preparation: Top each oatcake with goat cheese spread and leeks.  

Spicy Orange Sausage Patties 
1 lb. ground sausage (or pork) 1/4 c. bread crumbs tblorange juice 2 tsp. maple syrup 2 tsp. finely chopped cilantro 1/2 tsp. hot paprika or chili powder 1/2 tsp. salt 1/2 tsp. black pepper  Combine all ingredients and mix well. Heat nonstick pan over medium heat. Form each patty about 1/2 inch thick. Place in pan and fry, turning once, about 5 minutes per side, until cooked through.