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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Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

I was first given the book Winter’s Tale by a woman who worked with me in a law firm,  several years ago. She was an odd woman, claiming to be psychic and in touch with – in her own words – “the universal forces.”

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She was a practicing Wiccan, though it turns out she was in love with my then-boss and was using her Wiccan powers to try to destroy his marriage so she could have him. I digress slightly, but it was she who introduced me to this wonderful and mystical novel that encompasses magical realism, fantasy, history, metaphysics, and time travel, so I associate her with this novel. I suppose we all have that strange individual who has crossed our paths and made an unusual impression, whether good or bad.

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I love magical realism in books, though in my own humble opinion the Latin American writers do it best. Cases in point: Rudolfo Anaya, Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, and pretty much every book written by the late, great Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom I blogged about twice previously. But Mark Helprin brings snowy, turn-of-the-century New York City in a slightly alternate universe, into this magically realistic universe so beautifully. The endless clashes of good and evil, love and hate, life and death, and the eternity beyond it all, are described in such a way that you are transported there.

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The love story between Peter Lake, an Irish immigrant who is later granted supernatural powers, and Beverly Penn, the heiress dying of consumption, is stronger than death, stronger than time, and it’s that love story that colors the entire book.

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When I recently finished rereading this book, I was filled with joy and sadness; that such a world exists and that the book containing it had to come to an end. One of the lines that touched my heart and hit me so strongly in the heart was this one:  “Remember, what we are trying to do in this life is shatter time and bring back the dead.” For anyone who has ever loved and lost, whether it be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a grandparent, or a lover, this line is particularly poignant. We all want to shatter time and bring these people back…….whether they have actually passed on from this world or whether it is the love between us that died.

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Peter Lake is on the run from the unusual creature Pearly Soames – devil? demon? – with whom he has previously associated and who now wants to kill him. A magical white horse called Athansor has appeared to whisk him to safety, which he finds in a hidden garret in Grand Central Station. He is able to safely stable the horse, rest, and being hungry from his recent adventures, proceeds to cook himself a delicious meal of seafood stew.

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With his strength renewed, he realized that he was ravenously hungry, and proceeded to cook an excellent bouillabaisse culled from cans of varied fish, tomatoes, wine, oil and an enormous bottle of Saratoga spring water.

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I have yet to meet a combination of fish and tomatoes I don’t love. Bouillabaisse was something I’d yet to try, though, so today, a cold, windy day heralding the beginning of winter, seemed the appropriate time to recreate Peter Lake’s homemade meal.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on methods from Emeril Lagasse and the marvelous The Ultimate Book of Fish & Shellfish by Kate Whiteman, which has a place of honor among my cookbooks. There are many ideas about what constitutes proper bouillabaisse, but the overall consensus is that you can essentially use whichever fish and shellfish you’d like, and make the classic rouille to garnish the bread eaten with this dish.

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INGREDIENTS
1 small roasted red pepper, peeled and deseeded
2 chunks of baguette, torn into pieces
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

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1 egg yolk
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
7 cloves of garlic, minced (4 for the bouillabaisse, 3 for the rouille)
4 cups fish stock
1/2 cup Pernod
1/2 cup clam juice
2 leeks, white part only, washed and cut into rings
Handful of chopped parsley
1 fennel bulb

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Zest and juice of one orange
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, whole
Pinch of saffron threads

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4 bay leaves
8 ripe beefsteak or Campari tomatoes
4 small red potatoes, cubed
1 lb frozen salmon, cut into large chunks
1 lb. frozen cod, cut into large chunks
2 cups frozen shrimp, deveined and peeled but with tails attached
2 cups frozen clams in their shells
Remainder of the baguette, cut into thick slices

METHOD
For the rouille:
Combine the torn-up 2 baguette pieces, the roasted red pepper, 3 of the peeled garlic cloves, the Dijon mustard, the egg yolk, the lemon juice and the salt and pepper in a food processor. Mix until smooth, then slowly add the olive oil.

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Mix again until you have a smooth, thick emulsion. Set aside.

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For the bouillabaisse:
Saute the onion, celery and garlic in a bit of olive oil. Add the bay leaves and peppercorns. Add the leeks and the fennel, and saute for another 5 minutes, or until soft.

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Grate in the orange zest here, and then squeeze in the juice to the broth.

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Add 3 cups of the seafood stock. Stir to mix and simmer another 5 minutes. Then add the diced tomatoes.

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Add the Pernod, the tomato bouillon cube, the saffron, and the remainder of the fish stock. Allow to cook another 10-15 minutes, so the flavors mingle. You’ll be able to smell the saline of the stock and the anise of the liqueur.

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Once your broth has simmered 15 minutes, add a half-cup of clam juice and blend to a thick, smooth consistency with a stick blender. Toss in the parsley.

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Heat the oven broiler at this point. You’ll know why in a moment. Add the potatoes to the broth. Cook another 15 minutes, or until they soften. Add in your fish at this stage, but stagger based on thickness and delicacy. The idea is to have all the fish cooked perfectly. Add the cod and the salmon chunks first and cook for 6 minutes.

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Toss in the clams and enjoy that clatter of shells in the soup pot. Cook another 6 minutes, until the clams open up. Discard any that don’t open, unless you enjoy pain. Add the shrimp and cook until they turn pink.

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While the fish is cooking, toast the baguette slices under the broiler for 1 minute.  Remove, and spread with the rouille sauce.

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In a bowl, place 3 chunks of rouille-smeared bread. Ladle over some of the fish and the heavenly-scented broth. Drizzle over a bit of the rouille sauce.

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This is truly heaven in a bowl for seafood lovers. Rich, delicate and with a mix of green and salty, savory flavors that hit your tongue like a golden kiss. Soooooooooo good, and perfect for a chilly winter’s day.

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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I didn’t intend to do a blog post this week for several reasons, the main one being that my dearest and only aunt – my dad’s younger sister to whom I am very close – had an unexpected triple-bypass on Friday and that has been weighing on me. She came out of the surgery all right, but it was still a very worrying experience. Coupled with a very ugly fight with one of my sisters (it’s funny how stress can bring out the worst in families, isn’t it?), my heart wasn’t into doing much this weekend. But I came across The Rules of Magic on one of my bookshelves and thought “hey, this will be a total escape.”

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It was simply reading for the sheer pleasure, something that I sometimes forget about doing. Reading is, after all, a true pleasure with the feel of the pages, that sense of just falling into whatever world you’ve chosen, and when you come back to yourself, it’s almost a shock that the world is still there.

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If you’ve read Hoffman’s earlier book Practical Magic, you’ll recognize the characters of Frannie and Jet Owens. In the first book, they are the great-aunts of Sally and Gillian, and in this book, they take center stage. Frannie and Jet and their brother Vincent are raised away from the shadow of their notorious witch family in a stable, upwardly mobile manner. Their mother wants nothing to do with the magic that has touched and shaped their family for centuries, and love is the element to be avoided in this book. The three Owens children are raised to never fall in love, but when Aunt Isabelle enters their lives, she connects them with their heritage of magic and witchcraft and spells and it’s so beautifully described that I wished I’d been raised as a witch.

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I think the element I loved most in this book was the sheer sensuality of how scents are described, so vividly that my mouth almost watered. The herbs used in their spells, various recipes, the delicious smells of peppermint, patchouli, flowers, eucalyptus, chocolate, almonds, and most delectably, the savory scent of bacon. And of course, there was that passage that set the tone for how the children are perceived by other kids, describing how eerie Franny and Jet are in their youth.

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“Soon enough the other students knew not to irritate the Owens sisters, not if they didn’t want to trip over their own shoes or find themselves stuttering when called upon to give a report. There was something about the sisters that felt dangerous, even when all they were doing was eating tomato sandwiches in the lunchroom or searching for novels in the library.”

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I mean, it’s a total food and books reference RIGHT THERE! Eating tomato sandwiches! Looking for books! I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect passage. And a tomato sandwich – yum! Still, a plain old tomato sandwich, tasty as it, can be made better when you have a couple of ripe avocadoes, some bacon and a bit of imagination. Here’s my take on the Owens sisters’ tomato sandwiches. Magic is optional. But make sure everything is at room temperature, particularly the tomatoes.

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INGREDIENTS
1 ripe avocado
1 heirloom tomato
4 strips bacon
1 slice good quality bread, any type you want
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Fry the bacon and enjoy the salty, savory scent of it. I seriously don’t know how anyone could be a vegetarian with the smell of bacon around. Drain on a paper towel.

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Deseed the tomato and slice it into somewhat thick rounds. Add a bit of salt to the tomato slices.

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Mash the avocado and season it with the crushed red pepper, the lemon juice, and the salt and pepper.

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Toast the bread, and slather on the mashed avocado.

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Put the tomato rounds on top of the avocado, then add the bacon slices. Admire the lovely colors and textures before applying to your face. Sooooooooooo yum, and comforting too!

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The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

Thanks to AL for the photography.

Being a sucker for fairy tales, The Snow Queen is a particular favorite. I remember reading it as a little girl and being fascinated by the oh-so-foreign Northern European world of Gerda and Kay, the two children in this tale, though I’d forgotten there are several small backstories that lead up to the actual tale in which Gerda rescues Kay from the icy heart and clutches of the Snow Queen.

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What’s cool about the Snow Queen is that she’s not actually evil, in the way of similar archetypal figures in The Brothers Grimm. She is simply ice-cold, and has a coldly calm and logical outlook on life. I appreciated that she wasn’t a cardboard evil queen and there was actually some psychology in Andersen’s description of her.

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I was quite interested to find out that this classic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale inspired both the irritating Disney movie Frozen, and the wonderful Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, which are among my most favorite children’s books. I can definitely recognize The White Witch from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe here.

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This story starts with a naughty hobgoblin who creates a looking-glass that reflects purely negative things, either things that exist in the world or in the perceptions of human beings. The glass breaks, and is scattered all over the world, into the hearts and eyes of humans across the world, making them unable to see or feel anything good or happy or positive in the world. Kay, the young boy who gets splinters in both his eye and heart, and is taken prisoner by the Snow Queen. Gerda, Kay’s best friend who loves him dearly, sets off on a quest to bring him back, and along the way, has some unusual adventures. My favorite was when she meets the Little Robber Girl, a wild child in the company of a band of thieves who kidnap Gerda. The Little Robber Girl is a rather brutal creature, though she does save Gerda’s life and offer her freedom to continue on her quest. When the thieves capture Gerda and bring her to their camp in the care of the Little Robber Girl, Gerda, who is starving, notices “there was no chimney; so the smoke went up to the ceiling, and found a way out for itself. Soup was boiling in a large cauldron, and hares and rabbits were roasting on the spit.”

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I started thinking about how to combine these two food references, and pondered making rabbit stew. But because I can’t bring myself to eat cute, furry bunnies, I reconsidered. The soup could be any type of soup, and being in a caramelizing mood, I decided French onion soup with Welsh rarebit croutons on top, in place of the traditional baguette and melted Gruyere, would be fun and tasty. Welsh rarebit is actually called Welsh rabbit in some areas, which was partly my inspiration.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on Tyler Florence’s French Onion Soup recipe, and the hilariously funny and smart Alton Brown’s recipe for Welsh rarebit. The requisite flavor tweaks by me were, of course included.

For the French onion soup:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 red onions, sliced
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4 garlic cloves, chopped
5-6 fresh thyme sprigs
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2 bay leaves
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup red wine, about 1/2 bottle
2 quarts beef broth
2 beef bouillon cubes
1 tomato bouillon cube
For the Welsh rarebit sauce:
1 large slice of sourdough bread
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

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2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 large tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup shredded sharp Cheddar
1/2 cup Gruyere

METHOD
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large pan. Add the onion, garlic and thyme, and some salt and pepper to taste. Stir together on low heat.

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Add about a half-cup of good red wine to the caramelizing onions, and continue to stir. This is leisure cooking, so be prepared to cook low and slow. I personally find caramelizing onions to be incredibly therapeutic, like making risotto. You just stir and stir and stir, adding a bit of this or a bit of that to enhance the flavors.

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This is what you want your onions to look like. Depending on how low or high your heat, this may take 30 minutes or 2 hours.2016-12-11-17-26-25_resized

Add in your homemade beef broth to the onions, and toss in the bay leaves. If you’re lucky enough to have a friend who loves to make stock, ask her to provide you some. Otherwise, use boxed beef broth but get a good, organic brand. The taste is just better.

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Simmer the broth and onions low and slow again for about an hour. Add the rest of the red wine, and the two bouillon cubes, and continue to cook very low, covered. The longer you cook this soup, the more the flavors will mingle so this is a perfect Sunday afternoon dish.

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While the soup is slowly simmering and filling your kitchen with the warm scent of beef and onions, make the rarebit sauce. Melt the butter in a smaller saucepan, and whisk in the flour gradually but thoroughly so as not to have that floury taste.

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Add the Worchestershire sauce, and the Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and whisk together. Taste for seasoning at this point.

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Add the heavy cream and the milk here, and stir together. You’ll see it thickening and browning slightly as you continue to whisk. This is good. You want it to brown somewhat, as that will add to the flavor.

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Now it’s time to add the grated cheddar and Gruyere. Whisk in these two cheeses until they melt thoroughly. Don’t let them form a lump, as that will not be attractive.

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Turn down the heat, add a bit more milk, and then toast the bread.

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Ladle the soup into a bowl, add a bread slice on top, and then add a dollop of the rich, creamy rarebit sauce. The Dijon adds such a note of savory that it goes perfectly with the sweetness of the onions and beef.

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Eat with happiness in your heart, instead of the ice splinter that pierced Kay and caused him to drag Gerda all over the ice-covered world. However, like all good fairy tales, they lived happily ever after. As will you once you eat this soul-warming soup. Yum!

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