Reading Edinburgh: 44 Scotland Street

A surprise book! I haven’t even introduced the subject yet!

I’m heading to Scotland in just over a week, and what better way to prepare then to read about it? I’ve checked out a big stack of books from the library about all different parts of the country, and am having a great time digging in.

We’ll be spending our first few days of the trip in Edinburgh so that’s where I started, and fortunately picked a great book to begin my journey, 44 Scotland Street, written by Alexander McCall Smith. Mr. Smith came into his writing career in his 50s, but has since  sold over 20 million books and his work has been translated in over 40 languages. And he lives down the street from J.K. Rowling! He’s known for an easy-going style and creating memorable characters, and that certainly holds true here.

Cockborn Street in Edinburgh
Cockborn Street in Edinburgh (image by David Monniaux, via Wikimedia Commons)

This story originally came together as a daily serial in the The Scotsman newspaper. It ran everyday for six months, and was enormously popular. Nothing huge happens, no drama or earth-shattering revelations; just a nice story with engaging people in a unique city.

Full disclosure: I’m listening to this one. I don’t take advantage of audio books very often, and I have no idea why. They almost always turn out to be a lot of fun, and this is no exception. The narrator, Robert Ian McKenzie, does a great job and all of the Edinburgh accents are completely charming.

And a bonus: our hotel is less than a mile from the address in the title. I love it!

Scotland Street to Brunswick Street
Scotland Street to Brunswick Street (Source: Google Maps)

Reading Libya: The Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Al-Koni

The desert is a true treasure

for him who seeks refuge

from men and the evil of men.

In it is contentment,

In it is death and all you seek.

-Sufi muwwal

I am a firm believer that if we let it, the landscape we live in can define us.
I’m a person of trees and grass and green. Born in a place that is all of those things, I’ve lived most of my life in the Eastern Deciduous forest zone, or in a subtropical landscape.

But there is very much a part of me that connects fully to the desert. I love the intensity, the wide open spaces; it’s a very different feeling than where I call home. When I get stressed, and all of the noise of the world is starting to drive me a little crazy, I’m always tempted to get in my car and drive until the green runs out. To get to a place where there’s nothing stopping the sun and wind.

Ubari oasis - with lakes in Erg Awbari (Idehan Ubari) in the Sahara desert region of the Wadi Al Hayaa District, of the Fezzan region in southwestern Libya.
Ubari oasis – with lakes in Erg Awbari (Idehan Ubari) in the Sahara desert region of the Wadi Al Hayaa District, of the Fezzan region in southwestern Libya (image by Luca Galuzzi http://www.galuzzi.it, via Wikimedia Commons)

And now I have this book to turn to when I need that feeling. The author, Ibrahim Al-Koni, is Tuareg and it’s crystal clear that he’s intimately in tune with his people’s deep desert roots. His love of that land absolutely bursts out of almost every line of this book; once I started it, I could not put it down.

It’s a tough read in terms of the messages he’s trying to convey; I wanted to scream “Stop it! Go away!” to some of the characters, but that’s offset by the beauty and depth of the story’s protagonist, and the landscape and animals that he loves and honors.

I’m thrilled to have read this book, and have two more of this author’s titles on order from the library. I’m never going to get through my To-Read pile of books, which is really a mountain anymore, but oh well. Just knowing there’s literature out in the world like this can be enough…

Sand dunes of Wan Caza in the Sahara desert region of Fezzan in Libya
Sand dunes of Wan Caza in the Sahara desert region of Fezzan in Libya (image by Luca Galuzzi – http://www.galuzzi.it, via Wikimedia Commons)

 

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Reading Guatemala: The Popol Vuh

A foreign power attempting to wipe out an ancient religion and culture. A story formed by oral tradition, written down by an unknown scribe in hopes that future generations would know their own history. That’s how the Popul Vuh came to be. And it’s an honor and a privilege to be able to experience it now.

The Popul Vuh is sometimes referred to as The Mayan Bible, but that’s misleading. It doesn’t claim to be the Word of God, or a spiritual text that tells the faithful how to live life. It’s the origin story  and cosmology of the Quiche Maya, who live in what is now modern-day Guatemala. The Quiche refer to it as an Ilb’al – an “instrument of sight” – and also as “The Book of the Mat”, since it was traditionally told to an audience of people sitting on woven mats

There are tales of silent nothingness, restless and vengeful gods, the making of the first men and women. The book concludes with the genealogy and migration of the Quiche Maya, and with this mournful passage:

This is enough about the being of Quiche, given that there is no longer a place to see it. There is the original book and ancient writing owned by the lords, now lost, but even so, everything has been completed here concerning Quiche, which is now named Santa Cruz.

There are numerous translations available, but I chose the one by Dennis Tedlock. I just read that he passed away last year, which makes me very sad; there are quite a few very lovely tributes to him out in the world which goes to show what an impact he had. He’s left a great legacy of translated works from both the Maya, and the Zuni people in the American Southwest. I’ll be moving on from the Popul Vuh to his translation of the Rabinal Achí, a Mayan drama that survives from pre-Columbian times and that’s still performed annually in Guatemala. How cool is that? While I’m at it, I’m also reading a couple of books by his wife, Barbara Tedlock. It’s like a light switch has flipped for me, and I’ll be learning all I can about this corner of the world…stay tuned!

An original painting showing figures from the Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh, Oriente (image by Cuilomerto (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons)

The Culinary Adventure of Cookbook Club: My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz

Introducing a whole new side trip for this blog: a cookbook club! In truth, I’ve been fortunate enough to have been cooking with this great group of people for over two years now, and it’s one of the great pleasures of my life. The culinary experience of our little gang ranges from professional chefs, to enthused hobbyists (hello!), to a some very busy moms who love to have an excuse to cook up a storm once in awhile. We embrace whatever everyone brings to the table, because it is all good.

Selection of cooked dishes on a countertop
Cookbook Club! (image by The Global Reader)
We meet once every other month, and hosting duties rotate. The current host picks the cookbook, and then everyone selects their dish or dishes from there. It’s a great system, and we are clicking along nicely with the format. We’ve also started to add more informal dinners on the off-months, but that’s a post for another time…

This month, the cookbook was My Paris Kitchen, by David Lebovitz. If you’ve caught any of the of the hype around this book, go ahead and believe it because it is EXCELLENT.

The first dish I brought to the party: Chicken with Mustard. Straight-forward ingredients, relaxing to cook, so good to eat; this is a keeper.


Chicken with Mustard (adapted from My Paris Kitchen)

Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon sweet or smoked paprika ( I used smoked)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
  • 8 pieces dark-meat, bone-in, skin-on chicken (separate thighs and drumsticks; 4 to 5 pounds total) ( I used boneless thighs, since I knew some folks prefer that)
  • 1 cup diced smoked thick-cut bacon
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (may substitute 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme) I used dry
  • Olive oil (optional)
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seed (may substitute coarse-grain mustard)
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons crème fraîche or heavy cream ( I used heavy cream)
  • Warm water (optional)
  • Finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley or chives, for garnish
Directions

Mix 1/2 cup of the Dijon mustard in a bowl with the paprika, a few generous grinds of pepper and the salt. Toss the chicken pieces in the mustard mixture, lifting the skin and rubbing some of the mixture underneath. Note: I had a combo of drumsticks, and then boneless thighs. I knew that a few of our group preferred chicken off the bone (as does my husband), so I wanted to see how that would go. Tastes just as good!

Line a plate with a few layers of paper towel. Heat a large, wide skillet with a cover, or a Dutch oven, over medium-high heat until it is almost smoking. Add the bacon and cook, stirring frequently, until it has crisped and browned and most of its fat has rendered. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the bacon pieces to the lined plate. Drain all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the skillet.

Add the onion and stir to coat. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring a few times, until the onion is softened and mostly translucent. Stir in the thyme; cook for a few minutes, until fragrant, then use a spatula to scrape the contents of the skillet into a large bowl.

Return the skillet or Dutch oven to medium-high heat; once it’s quite hot, add the chicken pieces skin side down; if they don’t fit, work in two batches, adding oil as needed. Cook until well-browned on the bottom, then turn the pieces over and cook to achieve good color on the second side; this might take 20 to 25 minutes. Transfer the chicken to the bowl with the onion.

Pour the wine into the pan to deglaze it, keeping clear of the steam that rises. Use a firm spatula to quickly dislodge any browned bits from the bottom of the skillet. (This is the key to the whole dish. Get all of that browned up goodness into the sauce!)

Return all of the chicken and any accumulated juices to the skillet or Dutch oven and add the onion mixture and bacon. Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, turning the chicken pieces over a few times during cooking. To check for doneness, insert the sharp tip of a knife into the meat next to the thigh bone; if the meat is still pink, cook for a few more minutes.

Once the chicken is cooked through, remove the skillet or Dutch oven from the heat. Stir in the remaining 3 tablespoons of Dijon mustard, the mustard seed and the crème fraîche or heavy cream to form a sauce. If it seems too thick, stir in a little warm water.

Sprinkle chopped parsley or chives over the top. Serve hot.

Chicken with Mustard in an orange Dutch oven
Chicken with Mustard from My Paris Kitchen (image by The Global Reader)

 

I also made the Salted Caramel Chocolate Mousse. Hello! SO GOOD! I’m sort of sad to know that I can make this, because now I always will and there’s no chance of ever being skinny again.  Oh well!

I’m just going to link out to Epicurious for this one, since my photos of the mousse are terrifying. Note to self: chocolate doesn’t look awesome just flatly photographed on a white plate. One note before I send you on your way: I made this twice, once with semisweet chocolate, and then with bittersweet. Both are fantastic, but I recommend the latter. The mousse is already very sweet with the caramel sauce; you don’t need the extra sugar at all.

Salted Caramel Chocolate Mousse

An absolute 5 star rating for this cookbook! Go buy it now, and cook happy!