July 22, 2012

Garlic-Roasted Pepper Sauce

This is a really easy to make sauce that’s usable two ways – scoop out the pepper and garlic pulp to use as salsa, or drizzle the oil for flavor on fish, meats or salads.  The more stuff you’ve got ready to go, the easier it is to deal with hungry players! My wife and I really love the piquant, smoky flavor, especially on last night’s grilled tuna belly.

Ingredients

  • a double handful of red bell peppers
  • a large head of garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tsp crushed black pepper
  • 1-2 tsp chili powder
  • 1-2 tsp whole cumin seeds
  • 1 cup olive oil

I prefer to use whole cumin seeds for the brighter flavor.

Procedure
Roast the bell peppers.  You can do this over a gas flame, on a grill pan, or in an oven, whatever works for you.  The point is to get the outside starting to char. 

Remove the charred peppers from heat and put them in a bowl, then cover for 10 minutes or so.  They’ll be easier to peel afterward, as the skins loosen while they steam under the cover.  Peel, slice and de-seed.

Heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a saucepan.  Add spices and stir-fry for half a minute, then add garlic.  Add in the bell peppers when garlic is starting to turn golden.  Add the rest of the olive oil and continue stir-frying for another two minutes.

Let the sauce cool, then whiz it in a blender.  Or just leave the peppers as they are.  Store in a bottle and refrigerate. 

July 7, 2012

Conn Iggulden’s ‘Bones of the Hills’

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“What is best in life? To crush your enemies, drive them before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.”  This time I’m not quoting Arnold in the movie, but straight from the source – Genghis Khan.  This wolfish ethic runs through all the pages of Conn Iggulden’s ‘Bones of the Hills,’ third in his Conqueror series.

It seems I’ve been on a historical fiction bend lately.  It’s getting harder to find F&SF with the flavor I like, or writers that I like, so I’ve turned to Pressfield, Perez-Reverte and Bernard Cornwell, and lately, Conn Iggulden.  Bones of the Hills is my first Iggulden purchase, chosen for its focus on one historical figure in particular: not Genghis, but Genghis’ estranged son, Jochi.

I’ve always had a very strong interest in the medieval Mongols, and Jochi is particularly intriguing for me because of the mystery and tragedy surrounding him.  Born shortly after the young Genghis recovered his wife Borte from a kidnapper, it was never certain who Jochi’s true father was.  It’s probably Genghis’ attachment to his first and chief wife Borte, or perhaps he was hedging his bets on heirs given the uncertainty of any son’s survival, but it’s interesting that he never repudiated his doubtful firstborn.  Instead he raised him up to be one of his generals. In the end, however, Genghis chose Ogodei, his youngest son, to succeed him instead of either Jochi or the next-born, Chagatai.

The first scene after the prologue, when Subotai surprises Jochi by handing him command of a strike against some Russian knights, was enough to make me buy the book outright.  You’ll end up rooting for Jochi through most of the book, specially in comparison with Chagatai, who had a historical reputation for hot-headedness.

Jochi’s rivalry with Chagatai forms an electric thread throughout the novel, and this was really what kept me reading.  After consuming Cornwell’s work, I’m sorry to say I find Iggulden’s prose rather flat.  If you’re familiar with Raymond Feist, imagine what his work was like before he got Magician edited.  Serviceable, but it could be better.

On the other hand, though, the book is packed with great details.  Iggulden’s done a lot of research, it seems, and he succeeds in bringing to life the daring and vastness of the Mongol conquests.  You’re whisked from the shores of the Caspian Sea to Korea then back west to Samarkand within just a few chapters, much as the Mongols themselves rode.

I’ll not spoil the book for your reading by revealing Jochi’s fate in it, but I’ll just say I think it’s historically plausible.  He sort of drops out of history just before Genghis’ death, but his descendants would go on to found the Golden Horde.

Will I buy the rest of the series? The value of these books for me is their content and perspective, not the storytelling, so I’ll cherry-pick from points and characters I want to follow.  This probably means my next Iggulden acquisition will be Conqueror, which revolves around Kublai Khan.

July 5, 2012

Perez-Reverte’s ‘Pirates of the Levant’

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If Jack Sparrow has an anti-thesis, it’s the cold, gritty, yet very human ‘Captain’ Diego Alatriste in his sixth adventure, Pirates of the Levant

Having first discovered Alatriste through mention of the Spanish RPG based on it, and then later by purchasing The Sun Over Breda, I found it impossible to resist buying this one as soon as I saw it. Perez-Reverte is one solid writer of whom I’ve learned to have high expectations, and once again he has delivered. And how!

In this adventure, Alatriste and his companion Inigo Balboa join a Spanish corsair crew raiding Turkish shipping in the Mediterranean, with stopovers for additional mayhem in North Africa.  There’s action aplenty, and the climactic battle in which our heroes are besieged at sea by a squadron of Turkish galleys is particularly inspiring.  Better yet, there’s a lot of historical and cultural detail, lots of flavor that a game master can take away for use in a swashbuckling 17th century campaign.

Through it all, though, Perez-Reverte’s narration is surprisingly understated, very matter-of-fact, and there’s not too much suspense because you know the main characters lived – it’s a first person narration, and the narrator keeps referring to episodes that occurred after this adventure; but it’s incredibly engaging all the same for the color and perceptiveness of human character Perez-Reverte gives. The author pulls no punches in describing the seamier side of human nature at war, so you’re keenly aware of the price being paid for every life taken by Alatriste’s and Balboa’s blades.

Like the other Alatriste adventures, the story is narrated by Inigo Balboa, and here again Perez-Reverte shows interesting technique.  The title character, Alatriste, doesn’t change -- he’s still the grim, taciturn, thoughtful, impoverished yet refined swordsman of the earlier novels, though we get some more interesting glimpses of his past.  Instead, it’s Balboa who’s changing, his attitudes and viewpoints evolving as he grows older and more confident, though not necessarily wiser.

It’s amusing to read how Alatriste plots to save the young Balboa from assassination by some gamblers in Naples, even after a heated exchange that could’ve resulted in a duel, had Alatriste been less attached to the boy.  It takes intervention by their Moorish companion Gurriato to prod Balboa into reconciling with Alatriste, and only at the vespers of a battle in which they’re both likely to die. Definitely  great man-reading.

Make no mistake, I enjoy Pirates of the Caribbean and Jack Sparrow’s antics immensely.  It’s like saying I like hot chocolate.  But I also like a smooth, strong port – and that’s what Pirates of the Levant is.

July 1, 2012

Chili-Garlic Honey-Orange Chicken

Been too busy to write anything new on Hari Ragat since getting back to Davao, but I made this for my wife last night and she liked it a lot, so here’s a Fire n’ Forget Cooking post. 

Ingredients

  • 1/2kg chicken parts (we used our fave, wings)
  • 1-2 tsp Chinese chili-garlic paste
  • 2 tsp orange marmalade
  • 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tbsp tomato ketchup
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • salt and black pepper to taste

Procedure
Combine all ingredients in a bowl and marinade chicken in it for at least an hour (3 hours to overnight is best). 

Barbecue chicken over charcoal, or bake at 350 F for about 30 minutes.  Use the remaining marinade to baste the chicken while cooking.

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