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I’m not much for bodice rippers. I find them overly dramatic, unrealistic, and the writing is often just bad. But enough about 50 Shades of Grey.
That being said, I just finished Lily Prior’s La Cucina – A Novel Of Rapture, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Essentially, it’s a book about food and sex. There is some murder thrown in for good measure, a dramatic Sicilian mother, conjoined twins, a villa by the sea, a parrot, a little black pug(!), and of course, food. And sex. And a library.
You read that right. Books. Food. Sex. The (Un)Holy Trinity, at least in my world.
It’s interesting, the connections between sex and food that are found in literature, and indeed, in life. After all, food nourishes us, and sex…….well, none of us would be here without it. Both are ways in which we often feel most connected to the physical – eating a wonderful meal or being with a wonderful lover. Both have the potential to be so comforting in the face of strife and trouble, as well as being marvelous celebrations of simply being alive.
This novel takes that connection between food and sex and runs with it in such a delightful way. The main character, Rosa, finds solace as a librarian after a tragedy and ends up finding love again, but her main passion, her vocation, her reason for being, is cooking.
See that there link between books and food? Ring a bell? Anyway, I digress.
The book is filled with so many wonderful food dishes and references that I almost can’t choose which is my favorite. One of the best is when Rosa meets the man who will ultimately become her lover and cannot sleep for thinking about him. I mean, who hasn’t tossed and turned thinking about someone we have desired or loved who turned our heads and hearts inside out…….not to mention our stomachs? In her insomnia, she prepares something delectable-sounding called formaggio all’ Argentiera, which is caciocavallo cheese cooked slowly to melt and mixed with red wine vinegar, garlic and oregano, then piled onto rustic bread and eaten with great delight. Doesn’t that sound absolutely heavenly? I couldn’t find caciocavallo locally, but I may return to this recipe and book if ever I do. Be warned.
By far, my favorite scene in the book is when her lover invites her to his (of course!) villa overlooking the sea and cooks her the most sensual and amazing meal, and then proceeds to eat it off her body. Holy Mother of God! He starts with oysters, placing them at strategic areas on her body and eating them off. He tilts her wineglass so that wine pours into her mouth and throat, then kisses her.
Did I mention this book verges on pornographic? But in a good way.
He finishes by putting spaghetti and his own homemade tomato ragú sauce over her and eating it off, strand by luscious strand. “He had produced a marvelous ragú with meat, tomatoes, and lots of garlic. As I watched, he mixed in the sauce with the spaghetti. After making sure it wasn’t too hot, he ladled it onto my body……..With his hands, he fed the spaghetti to me, trailing its tendrils between my parted lips. It was divine. Mmmmmmm. A truly wonderful sauce: lots of garlic, tender chunks of meat.” (pp. 173-174).
I defy you to not be enticed by that description, both of passion and of food. As such, I was inspired to try and recreate a tomato ragú that would entice a lover to pour it all over me and eat it off. I’ll report back.
This is the cooking method that worked for me.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 ribs celery, ends cut off
1 carrot, peeled
1 small red onion, peeled
8-10 cloves of roasted garlic, which you will have already roasted in your bad-ass terracotta roaster that you got for Christmas. If you don’t have a roaster, just use raw, peeled garlic cloves and finely chop, you plebian.
Dried herbs: basil, oregano, parsley, thyme, rosemary, and sage – about a heaping teaspoon of each. You can use fresh if you have on hand, just use about a half-teaspoon in that case.
1/2 good-quality ground beef or ground bison (I used beef here)
1/2 good-quality ground pork or ground veal (I used pork here)
2 cans crushed tomatoes, undrained
About a cup of good red wine (by good, I mean drinkable. In fact, you can continue sipping the wine as your ragu sauce cooks. Or if you’re forced to do so, you can share the wine with your sister, who showed up to taste-test the sauce and didn’t leave.)
1 large tablespoon chicken stock paste
1 large tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup heavy cream, or half-and-half if you’re trying to lighten it up. Freak.
Shaved Parmesan to taste
Packet of pasta of your choice: spaghetti, farfalle, penne, fusilli, linguine, strozzaprezzi, etc. I used linguine here.
Finely chop the celery, carrots, and onion. I used my mini food chopper, but you can use a regular kitchen knife, or if you want to get fancy and pretend you’re Sophia Loren or Nigella Lawson, bust out the mezzaluna!
In a large metal pot, pour in your olive oil. Turn your burner up to medium. Add your butter and slowly melt. The butter keeps the oil from burning, in case you were interested. When both are melted, add your ground meats and break up with a wooden spoon. Stir regularly for about 5-7 minutes, moving the meat around in the pan so that it browns but doesn’t burn. It will also keep cooking in the tomato sauce, so don’t overcook now. Once browned,remove the cooked meat to a plate.
Reduce heat to medium-low. Add chopped celery, carrot, onion, and dried herbs to the warm oil in the pan. Sprinkle over a little salt, as this will release the moisture from the veggies and will keep them from burning. Let them come up to heat slowly and cook for about 10 minutes, turning in the heat so they don’t stick or burn. Add your dried herbs here, and stir together. You’ll know you’re ready for the next step when the smells of the herbs and cooked vegetables mingle in the air.
Lower the heat to low and add the cooked meats. Stir together with the veggie mush. Add your two cans of tomatoes, your cup of red wine, your roasted garlic cloves (squeezed out of the skin), and your chicken and tomato pastes.
Stir so that all is mixed well, and cover. Simmer for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally and tasting for flavor and seasonings.
At about 2.5 hours into cooking, take of the lid, stir in the heavy cream and the Parmesan cheese, stir to mix well and cover again for about 10 minutes. Check the sauce to make sure the cheese doesn’t burn or the cream doesn’t curdle. Remove the lid and let cook slowly while you get your pasta ready.
Put on another pot of water and bring to a boil. Salt the water, and add your pasta. Cook for about 7-8 minutes and check to make sure the pasta is cooked al dente, with still a little bite, but not totally soggy. Cook longer if necessary but don’t exceed 10 minutes. Remove about a cup of the pasta cooking water and set aside. Drain the cooked pasta. Check your ragú sauce again, stir and add a bit of the pasta water. Stir. Add your cooked pasta and stir together to ensure all the pasta is covered. Taste again and season as needed, or add more pasta water. Turn into bowls and eat happily.
You can enjoy with a lover, by yourself, or with your sister, who still won’t leave because she drank too much wine and is now tipsy.