There are all kinds of unexpected things you can stumble upon when reading fiction. In the excellent The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Divakaruni, you learn that a "measure of pepper at the foot of the bed, shaped into a crescent, cures you of a nightmare." Also that "vanilla beans soaked soft in goat's milk and rubbed on the wristbone can guard against the evil eye." These are anomalous among the more traditional kind of recipes teeming in fiction. The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester is probably the most cookbook-like novel around, and it is my favorite. Imagine Humbert Humbert as a snobby epicurean. That is, essentially, Tarquin Winot, the fictional memoirist penning The Debt to Pleasure. There is a winter menu in this book I find completely appealing:
Goat's Cheese Salad
"It is a common fallacy to assume," Winot tells us, "that winter food should partake of the obvious associations evoked by winter: large viscid stews, unspillably thick soups, colossal puddings... This menu is designed and intended to give a sense of warmth, sunlight, the same feeling of opening out of the year ahead that one gets when encountering one's first glimpse, in January, of the upthrusting tenacious insouciant virginal snowdrop."
For the goat cheese salad, mix a variety of lettuces (I used spinach only and it was delicious). Make vinaigrette using seven parts olive oil to one part balsamic vinegar. Whisk with a fork until it becomes cloudy and emulsified. Arrange the lettuces and "luxuriantly nap them with your vinaigrette." Put slices of goat's cheese on bread (one per person) and place them under your oven's grill. Remove just as the cheese starts to bubble and brown. Place toast and cheese in the middle of the dressed plates and serve.
For the bouillabaisse stew, pick five different types of fish: Winot suggests red scorpionfish, sea robin, anglerfish, moon wrasse, and cuckoo wrasse. But since most of the Mediterranean fish Winot suggests are hard to come by on our coast, I suggest you look at this recipe to get some ideas for substitutes.
Clean the fish and chop into big chunks. Sweat 2 cloves of chopped garlic in one cup of Provençale olive oil. Add one can of chopped tomatoes and a pinch of saffron, and 12 cups of water and boil furiously. Put in the firmer textured fish and another cup of olive oil and boil hard for fifteen minutes. Add the softer textured fish and cook for five minutes. Place whole fish and big chunks on large soup plates and serve the broth separately with croutons and rouille. "I can't be bothered to go into details about the rouille since my fingers are starting to go wrinkly in the bath here," Lanchester as Winot writes. Here's a link to an easy recipe.
My favorite is cooking dessert though. And Laura Kalpakian's American Cookery is filled with some great ones. Told by a Mormon woman from a long line of women whose instinct was to "preside, to direct, and when necessary to defend", American Cookery is effortlessly buoyed by recipes. "There's a recipe for everything in life," Kalpakian writes. "A recipe is a license for invention. You take what you have and you turn it into what you want. It requires imagination."
Peel 4 tangerines (I had to make do with oranges), and pick off white pith. Set some water to heat on a double boiler and melt 1/3 cup bittersweet chocolate. Pour some honey in a shallow bowl and turn each tangerine until coated. Place in a saucer. When your chocolate has melted, ladle the chocolate on top of the tangerine. With a toothpick, "pop" the center of the tangerine so the chocolate will go down the center. Use a knife edge to drape or lace in threads and swirls around the saucer. To serve, put a dash of Cointreau outside the circle of honey. Eat with a knife and fork.
Here is another dessert, of the fried variety, from Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran, a novel about three sisters exiled by the Iranian revolution. This recipe carries the lovely name of Elephant Ears:
Beat 1 egg in a bowl. Add 1/2 cup milk, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup rosewater, and 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom. Slowly mix in 3 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour, kneading into a dough. Roll out until it is paper-thin. Using the rim of a wide-mouthed cup, trace and cut out a circle. Pinch the center of the circle with your thumb and forefinger to form a bow. Set aside. Repeat until all circles (approximately 15) are done. Heat 6 cups vegetable oil in a deep pan. Fry each ear for 1 minute. Lay pastries on paper towels to cool. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon mixture (1 cup confectioner's sugar and 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon).