Thursday, July 4, 2019

Good Omens and Duck Breast with Lavender and Blackberries

I positively shivered with delight last fall when I discovered a much-loved book,  Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett's Good Omens, was being made into a series for Amazon -- then mourned the desolate months that lay between me and the premiere on May 31st. When the waiting was taking its toll on my patience, I watched the trailer – multiple times, then  I re-read the book. The inconceivably delicious idea of an angel and demon working together to save our miserable planet resonated mightily for me because, frankly, I am sick to death of the internecine political war that is shredding our world – so much pettiness and venality. The book offers something much needed today,  a friendly peace between adversaries, love, courage and hope (although I am not sure we deserve it), served with generous lashings of wit and sly humor.

Yes, I needed it.  I realized recently that I hadn’t read a book for fun or escape in ages. Everything was work related. I actually felt guilty when I binged  The Prisoner, and guilty when started on a reading spree – but no more. I've come around to Neil Gaiman's point of view – it's good for you, “If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”  Read to escape, refresh your creative muscles and move outside your work box -- a box that can become a prison so stealthily you don't notice you are it and it is you!

Happily, Neil Gaiman's series Good Omens was everything I had hoped (the book was co-written in 1990 by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett who sadly died in 2015 - Gaiman wrote the series on his own).  I binged all 6 episodes in one deep, delicious gulp opening night with David Tennant and Michael Sheen playing the demon and the angel -- ooh la la – and no guilt at all!

A few weeks later, to my enormous delight, I met the author, Neil Gaiman, at a DGA showing of the first episode. HE was everything I imagined he would be and he stayed and spoke with everyone for hours.

However brilliantly captivating he may be with words and stories – he is equally eloquent in the silent language of listening. He had a way of listening that made you feel as if what you were saying was the most important thing in the world – a very rare quality to be sure.  I got to thank him for the curious side-effect that reading Good Omens had on the constantly churning No Exit  dreams that were feeding my insomnia years ago (scenarios of inescapable, hellish situations – trapped with ever-changing casts of horrible people turning me into the Scheherazade of nightmares). Read before bedtime, his angel and demon-made detour from Armageddon was just the weapon I needed to banish No Exit  from my dreamscapes -- no idea why it worked but it did. One of my favorite Gaiman quotes seemed apt, “People tend to find books when they are ready for them.” I might add they sometimes find them when they need them. I believe many people have been touched by Good Omens – for a million different reasons and often for different reasons at different times through the decades of their lives from youth to middle age when it is revisited – I most certainly saw it with different eyes when I read it again this winter (he said some people read it every year!).

We chatted about the production design and about the opening titles which delighted me. I asked if Peter Anderson Studios had done anything like it before and he said no – they were told to let their imagination run wild and they did. I told him the great story about Orson Welles and his camera man for Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland. Welles had never made films before and didn’t know what he couldn’t do so asked Toland ‘how about…?’ – and Toland said why not? Toland had asked to work on it because he was tired of studio directors and wanted a brilliant amateur who could push his envelope. The result of the collaboration is legendary.  Mr. Gaiman was amused with the connection.

I couldn’t get over how genuinely kind he seemed. This is a man that loves what he does and it shows, “I’m an author. We don’t want to lead. We don’t need to follow. We stay home and make stuff up and write it down and send it out into the world, and get inside people’s heads. Perhaps we change the world and perhaps we don’t. We never know. We just make stuff up.”

So, what made me love the book and then the Amazon series??? Probably the improbable friendship of the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley who have grown too fond of their earthly secondments to let the planet be destroyed by a duel between Heaven and Hell.  David Tennant and Michael Sheen add such depth to the relationship between friends with a 6,000 year history -- it's a wonder to watch the affectionate badinage -- these actors are at the top of their game.

In Good Omens, Heaven is as dull as dishwater – empty whiteness,  with a smug, handsome, impeccably dressed, violet-eyed angel Gabriel (John Hamm) and the halls are alive with Sound of Music because all the great composers are in’ the other place’.

Hell is a dreary gray basement office that has leaky plumbing, endless damp paperwork to be shuffled and catchy motivational signs. The Lord of the underworld Beelzebub is surrounded by flies and covered in suppurating sores.


Neither the demon Crowley (dressed like a rock star with an insanely divine 1934 Bentley and a fondness for 80’s Queen tapes) OR the angel Aziraphale (dressed like a Dickens’ character, owner of an antique bookstore and very partial to fine food), have any business in either of their respective home offices above and below - they are solidly earth-centric now. Banking on the plodding bureaucracy of Heaven and Hell (no one notices their lacklustre commitment to their missions), they perform enough miracles for better or worse to keep their side happy but actually cancel one another out and, in fact, begin working together – taking turns with assignments. Over the centuries, they have softened one another’s hard edges. The demon often questions the hardness of heavenly punishments. Most of what he gets up to could be described more as naughty than evil (screwing up phone service all over London?). The angel is overly fond of art and possessions and comfort – not quite up to the 7 deadlies but not purely spiritual any longer and that’s a GOOD thing. You can see why they don’t want their earthly assignments to end - - and neither do we!


The story involves quite an unconventional cast of humans beginning with the 17th century witch who wrote The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter (full of gems like ‘buy Apple stock in 1980' and 'don’t buy Betamax in 1972’). Her prophecies are still saving the day in the 21st century. Her story and descendants are also connected to some down-in-the-heel witchfinders (not the most successful plot-line) and a psychic dominatrix. Next are a group of young friends of the Anti-Christ named Adam who is set to begin the countdown for Armageddon on his 11th birthday after a hell-hound is released (a hell-hound who turns from a snarling red-eyed great dane monster into a sweet little terrier that Adam names Dog, thereby avoiding detection and endearing himself to the normal-boy-appearing Anti-Christ). There's also a Kraken to exact revenge on whale hunters, Atlantis reappearing, kindly aliens arriving and nuclear power plants operating without reactors – well basically anything the newly empowered Anti-Christ gets into his head after reading conspiracy theory magazines – although he has no idea that his wishes are coming true. Oh and let's not forget the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse  who are the guests of honor for the Armageddon party.

In the end, love, friendship and some pretty slick tricks conquer all and the world remains for a while longer –until the next time at least.

The locations are real or really well made. With all that needed to happen, a London street wasn’t going to be easy to requisition so they built one! You can see what the film constructed and what is computer generated – lovely work.

The charming village of Tadfield may have never existed – but it is beautifully played by Hambleden in Buckinghamshire -- midway between London and Oxford.

The show is full of many Easter eggs . One of the sweetest is co-author Terry Pratchett’s famous black fedora and scarf in Aziraphal’s bookshop on a coat rack, favorite books are also placed on the shelves in a subtle way. There are mentions of Dr. Who – kids threaten “exterminate ” and license plates tease clues (SID RAT is TARDIS backwards).

What about food in an Armageddon scenario??I know you are wondering by this point how am I going to get the customary recipe from this? Not to fear, contrary to everything you have ever imagined about angels and demons – in Good Omens, these otherworldly creatures eat and drink and enjoy it! Starting with Aziraphal swooning over sushi at the beginning, running to Paris for decent crepes during the French Revolution (in a tone-deaf but delightful Aristo outfit for which he nearly loses his non-citoyen head), and meeting to celebrate the earth’s reprieve at the Ritz where the story concludes – food has a role in the story.

That brings us to another Easter egg which is a substitution. Although the script says the Ritz, Aziraphale and Crowley meet at the Criterion, built in 1873, and famous for the fact that Dr. Watson meets a friend who arranges an introduction with Sherlock Holmes as a possible roommate in 1881 in Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock story, Study in Scarlet. The director Douglas McKinnon had wanted to shoot there since he worked on the Sherlock series and finally got his wish . Basically, the Criterion played the Ritz in Good Omens.

     The Criterion

The real Ritz Restaurant – much… Ritzier!

HAY-AGED BRESSE DUCK Beetroot, Pickled Blackberry and Lavender £90


Although Crowley and Aziraphale go to the Ritz to have their crepes (they are famous for their Crêpes Suzette), I have already written about those Crêpes Suzette HERE (I include the original recipe) and thought – well they probably didn’t just have dessert – and they have a table of sweets before them on the table, giving you the feeling they dined richly. You aren’t just going to have a sweet and a glass of wine when you are celebrating saving the world are you?

Since they don’t mention a main course – I felt I had carte blanche to choose something for them. I looked on the Ritz menu and found a lovely dish -- duck with Beetroot, Pickled Blackberry and Lavender. It feels a little related to the famous 11 Madison Park Restaurant's duck. I used Madison Park’s honey/spice rub, and found recipes for lavender beets and pickled blackberries. I made a little blackberry sauce for a dessert and found it brought the whole thing together when used with the duck. Grilling the duck is simple as could be and it gives that lovely smoke to the meat. It can be done in the pan and the oven if you don’t have a grill handy.

I served it with a wild rice salad with dried cherries, pomegranate, pecans, parsley and green onions and an orange vinaigrette

Grilled Duck with Lavender Beets, Pickled Blackberry and Blackberry Sauce serves 2-4 depending on appetite

2  Moulard duck breasts from D'Artagnan (about a pound each)
2 T honey (a single source honey is great – pine or lavender or heather)
2 T Szechwan peppercorns
2 T coriander seeds
1 T cumin seeds
2 T lavender

Salt and pepper

Pickled blackberries* these should be done a few days in advance
Lavender beets
Blackberry sauce

Score the duck skin in a diamond pattern, being careful not to cut through to the flesh. Rub all over with the honey. Put the spices and lavender in a spice grinder and grind a few times – still leaving a rough texture. Sprinkle liberally over the duck - leaving a little of the spice mix for grilling,  then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Let sit, uncovered, in the fridge for a few hours or the night before.

In the meantime, prepare the lavender beets and the blackberry sauce.

Heat a cast-iron skillet. Place the duck skin side down and let cook on medium for a minute until it renders some fat, then increase to medium high for 4 minutes or so. Save the duck fat for other things.

The meat is still fairly raw at this point and the skin not fully cooked – this cooking in a pan is just to render off some of the fat so it doesn't get lost in the grill.

Remove to a platter and cover with foil. Let rest a few hours un-refrigerated. Sprinkle on the rest of the spice mix to make up for what was lost in the pan frying.

Heat the grill. I like to use wood chips for extra flavor. Remember the duck is still quite fatty and will still cause flares so grill with care if you like to eat the skin. It’s safest to put it slightly away from the center, skin side down. I didn’t and the skin blackened quite a bit but the duck meat was still perfect.

Leave it on the grill for 4-5 minutes, then turn for another 3-5 minutes depending on how rare you like it.

Remove from the grill and allow to sit for 5 minutes then slice and serve with beets, pickled blackberries and blackberry sauce. The breasts are quite large – I find that 1 is enough for 2 people.

· If you don’t have a grill, sauté skin side down for 6 min, then flip for 1 minute, then put in 400º oven, fat side down for 6 minutes for rare.

Let set for 5 minutes and carve

Pickled Blackberries (based on Food and Wine recipe)

4 peppercorns
2 allspice berries
½” piece ginger
1 bay leaf
1 c red wine vinegar
3 T sugar
1 ½ T salt
1 shallot sliced thinly
1 sprig thyme
1 box blackberries

Crush spices in mortar. Add all save blackberries to saucepan and bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar. Cool and add the blackberries and refrigerate for at a few days.

Lavender Beets

1 bunch small-ish beets
2 T honey
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 T lavender
1T hazelnut oil (optional)
S & P

Pre-heat oven to 400º. Remove the greens and long tails from the beets. Put them in foil with another piece of foil beneath. Roast for 50min for small beets to 1:30 for very large ones – you can check them with a knife – baby beets might be even less.

Let cook in the foil for a while then slip the skins off when they are cool enough to handle. Cut them into smaller pieces if large and toss with honey and the rest and set aside – can be served warm or at room temperature

Blackberry Sauce

1 package frozen blackberries
2 T sugar
1 t lavender
1T cassis (optional)

Cook the blackberries until sugar is dissolved and berries are softened. Put through a foodmill or strainer to get rid of the seeds and store at room temperature or put in fridge if made a day ahead. You might want to double the recipe – it’s very good on ice cream or even other berries.

Crêpes Suzette for 2, original recipe

Crêpes, original recipe (makes 4 good size crêpes)

3 eggs
2 T flour
1 T water
1 T milk
pinch of salt
1-2 T butter

Stir to the consistency of thick olive oil and let rest for 30 minutes to an hour (modern change, I put all the ingredients in a blender and mix then strain the batter and use it after it rests 15 minutes).

For the first crepe, generously coat the pan with butter… but do not puddle it… too much butter makes bad crepes. After that, add a smear of butter for each crepe (I often use a stick of butter and paint the pan with it). Make crepes using all the batter and fold each one twice, forming a wedge shape and reserve.

Crepes with less egg

¾ c milk
2 eggs
½ c flour
¼ t salt

Put everything in the blender and blend. Strain into a bowl and cover for 15 -30 minutes then continue with the instructions above.


Piece of lemon peel the size of the ball of your thumb, cut in thin strips
Piece of orange peel the size of the ball of your thumb, cut in thin strips
OR use a micro plane and grate the zest into the sugar (which is what I did)
2 T vanilla sugar (you can make this by scraping a pinch of vanilla off the pod into the sugar or stir a drop of vanilla into sugar)

Combine and let sit 2 days (I am not sure this is really necessary, I think you can use it soon after making it)

¼ lb butter

5 oz. (he calls for 5 ponies) of an equal blend of maraschino, curaçao and kirshwasser (if you don’t have them all, you can use just Curaçao or Grand Marnier or Cointreau or Triple Sec which are all orange-flavored like curaçao)

suprêmes of 1 blood orange (skinless, membraneless segments cut away from the orange -I threw the juice that collect from doing it into the butter)

orange zest for decoration (optional)

Melt butter. When it bubbles, add 3 ponies of liqueur blend, light on fire –– there will be a LOT of fire (it will go up about 6”) so pay attention, have a lid handy just in case. I didn’t need it but good to have to be on the safe side… don’t have anything flammable hanging around it!!!

As the fire goes out, add the vanilla sugar and stir till it is melted. Add the crepes and turn them ‘deftly’ in the hot sauce. Then add 2 more ponies of mixed liqueurs, flame again and serve. I had trouble with the second light. Might be good to light the alcohol in a small skillet and pour or at least warm the alcohol to get the vapors going. Place the crepes on the plate, toss the suprêmes and zest on top and pour the sauce over all.