The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

The Last Supper, that immortal painting by the equally immortal Leonardo da Vinci, always fascinated me, even as a child. Just looking at it takes you into that world, sitting beside Jesus, watching the disciples react to the news he would soon die, and noticing the amazing details of the work itself.

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Reading The Secret Supper took me back to my days of persistently asking questions about the nature of religion and God, because this book raises almost as many questions as it answers. Being raised Catholic, of course I’d heard the story of Jesus asking his disciples to take this bread and eat it, and take this wine and drink it, and the mystery of transmogrification, so seeing this painting as a child made me start to question what I had been taught. Of course, when you’re young and asking questions about religion, it tends to not go over well. In this book, when the main character, Father Agostino Leyre, begins asking questions about the nature of faith, God, and Leonardo’s masterpiece, it’s no different for him.

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One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is its similarity to The Name of the Rose, my all-time favorite book in the world. The monks, the literary mystery, one man trying to answer questions………although this one is less weighty on philosophy. Still a marvelous read, if you’re into the Italian Renaissance and symbolism in paintings and Da Vinci himself. Or if you’re into references about Italian cuisine, you’ll enjoy this book, too.

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My stomach was making noises under my habit. With solicitude, the librarian led me to the kitchen and managed to rustle up a few scraps from suppertime………”It’s panzanella, Father,” he explained, helping me to a still-warm bowl that heated my freezing hands. “Panzanella?” “Eat. It’s a bread soup, made with cucumber and onion. It will please you.”

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Panzanella can be in the form of a soup, but is essentially a bread salad, rustic peasant food that used stale bread. Most likely, the very poor had only bread and onions as their panzanella base. It’s become traditional to include mozzarella, tomatoes and occasionally cucumbers, and an herb-based dressing with olive oil and vinegar, and being that I like to roast vegetables, I had the idea of roasting asparagus and garlic alongside the bread croutons, replacing the more usual cucumber which can get soggy. A traditional panzanella salad is delicious anytime of the year, and is also an excellent way to use up any bread or tomatoes you have lying around.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the New York Times version by the great Melissa Clark, with requisite changes by yours truly. As always.

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb. asparagus, rinsed and trimmed
1 large head of garlic
1 stale baguette, cubed
3 tablespoons regular olive oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
2 large, ripe tomatoes at room temperature
6 oz. fresh mozzarella, cubed
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil
1 bunch of fresh basil
1 bunch of fresh oregano
3 tablespoons capers
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Spread out the asparagus on a parchment-sheet lined baking tray. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Slice the top off the head of garlic, drizzle with more olive oil and some salt and pepper, and put into a well-soaked terracotta garlic roaster.

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Lay the cubed bread pieces on another baking sheet, and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Place all three items in the hot oven and bake for up to 20 minutes apiece, checking frequently. The bread will cook fastest so don’t let it burn and remove when it is golden-brown. The asparagus will take a few more minutes, and the garlic will take longest, so plan to cook it for up to 45 minutes.

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Cut up the tomatoes, and place them in a bowl with the mozzarella.

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Finely mince the onion, add a tablespoonful of garlic paste, and add to the tomatoes and mozzarella. Stir to mix everything.

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Finely dice the basil and oregano.

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Combine the vinegar, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and the cut-up herbs in a large measuring cup, then slowly add in 3 tablespoons of Meyer lemon olive oil, whisking together to form a vinaigrette. Taste for seasoning.

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Add the cooled bread cubes to the tomatoes and cheese, then cut up the asparagus into smaller pieces and mix with the tomatoes and bread.

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Squeeze the roasted garlic cloves out of the garlic head, and add to the tomato mixture. Toss in the capers and stir together.

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Pour over the vinaigrette, and stir to mix well. Allow to sit for about 30 minutes, to let the bread soak up the delicious juices, which is the whole point of this dish.

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Enjoy with some grilled chicken or on its own as a light lunch, but don’t forget the wine. Jesus would never forgive you, nor would Father Leyre.

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34 thoughts on “The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

  1. Apparently, I’m a little behind on your posts!! ….and everyone’s… I’ve always wanted to make a panzanella. This sounds great! And, I’m sure you know my thoughts on Religion… we’ve had the “growing up a Catholic girl” chat before. I feel like our views are pretty similar! Ha ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Get with the program, woman! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed this post and thank you. I enjoyed both the book and the dish, but I love asparagus so anytime I can add it to a dish, I do so. And of course, anything that is subversive from a religious viewpoint makes me even happier.

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    1. Thank you! I greatly enjoyed the read, but I love this kind of book. And the panzanella was quite delicious. You can really do so much with it, and it’s a good way of using up vegetables that are about to go bad. I highly recommend it.

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  2. …boom terrific alternative panzanella recipe… (because of the need to reserve ahead, and a bit of silliness years past, I still haven’t seen the last supper. Bad on my part… every year – because sometimes Leonardo’s fixing recipes didn’t work as well as others – it still degrades even after renovation. Metaphorically seductive, but unfortunate none the less…)

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    1. Thank you! I was quite pleased with how it came out. The roasted asparagus in particular was so delicious. I did get to see the Last Supper, but it was so crowded that it’s difficult to get a good look at it. I hope it doesn’t completely disintegrate but since this was meant to be an experiment in painting from da Vinci, you’re right in that it likely won’t stand the test of time. Which is sad, although I’m happy there are so many reproductions that it won’t be wholly lost.

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  3. This looks really good, and meatless for Lent, too. I love books like this as well…..kind of with a Da Vinci code vibe. Think I’ll have to try them both.

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    1. Thanks, Marianne! It’s actually really simple but I think adding the asparagus brings it to a new level. The book is extremely enjoyable as well. Religious conspiracies in Renaissance Italy! Always one of my favorite topics.

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  4. So glad to see you featuring Italian cuisine! Many mentions of food in Andrea Camilleri’s works that are detective novels that take place in southern Sicily. They are of course included in the Detective Montalbano series from the BBC. Many have been translated into English for easy reading…

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    1. Thank you so much for your kind comment. Another friend of mine who is an Italian cook and bloggers had turned me on to the Camilleri books as well. I didn’t realize they had been translated into English, so I’m definitely going to have to check them out.

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  5. i think italian is my favorite cuisine. just reading the ingredients sends me. and such great art and literature and history too. now i want to go there! i just read elena ferrante’s neapolitan series and really loved them.

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    1. I’ve had a few other people recommend that series to me, particularly “My Brilliant Friend.” I’ll have to add it to my ever-growing list of books set in Italy. Glad you enjoyed the post! I’m with you on Italian food. Haven’t met any Italian dish yet that I didn’t like.

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  6. This story took me back to childhood when my mom and I would walk along the ditchbanks in Tome, harvesting wild asparagus, which she later prepared into a yummy buttery side dish.

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    1. My grandmother used to take my sister and I walking up on our property in Torreon, and we’d pick the wild purslane, which she called verdolagas. Seems we both went foraging for veggies when we were young. 🙂

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