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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Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

A very magical and whimsical book ostensibly written for children, it also translates beautifully for adults. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is, at its heart, a poignant treatise on the importance of words and stories and language and not censoring either your imagination or your voice. Written by Salman Rushdie, whose seminal work The Satanic Verses earned him a death warrant from the former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, this novel was written for his son Zafar when Rushdie was in hiding.

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Reading this wonderful tale about Haroun, whose father Rashid, is a master storyteller, and who must go on a journey through the world of stories to help his father regain his storytelling ability, was both inspiring and somewhat depressing. Since Rushdie wrote this book for his son when he was in exile during the fatwa put on his life by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, you can detect a sadness, a wistfulness in the words.

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Along his journey, as with every type of quest book, the main character runs into a fantastical array of side characters, including Blabbermouth – reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, and so many more works of fantasy and fiction.

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“You mean that just because you’re a girl you aren’t allowed to be a page?” Haroun asked sleepily. “I suppose you only do what you’re told,” Blabbermouth hotly rejoined. “I suppose you always eat up all the food on your plate, even the cauliflower.”

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Cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables, but I only like it when it’s cooked. I know, I’m just weird not liking raw vegetables, but either the texture or that green underflavor just makes me want to barf. So in doing some research on ways to jazz up roasted cauliflower, I came across this marvelous method on the Whole Bite Blog, and am reproducing it in honor of Salman Rushdie’s paean to his son and to the importance of free speech.

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INGREDIENTS
1 large head of cauliflower
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons capers
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Wash the cauliflower and break into florets in a large bowl. Pour over the olive oil and mix well with your hands to ensure every piece is covered.

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Lay the cauliflower pieces on a large flat baking tray and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Roast for 25 minutes until the cauliflower browns, then flip the pieces so the other side can brown evenly, and roast another 25 minutes.

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While the cauliflower is roasting in the last 15 minutes, heat a cast-iron skillet and toast the almonds until they start to brown and you can smell the nutty flavor. Allow to cool a bit.

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For the vinaigrette, mix the lemon juice and zest, the capers, Dijon mustard and maple syrup together. Whisk in the olive oil slowly until the vinaigrette thickens. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

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Put the roasted cauliflower into a large bowl, sprinkle over the toasted almonds, and slowly pour over the vinaigrette, stirring to ensure everything gets a good dose.

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Plate up and serve with chicken or salmon or anything else. It is sooooooo delicious, with savory flavors beautifully offset by the tangy lemon and sweet maple syrup, all gorgeously enhancing the roasted nuttiness of the cauliflower. Definitely a keeper!

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A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Both a novel of psychological suspense and genuine supernatural horror, A Head Full of Ghosts is head case of a book…..pardon the pun. I love a book that cleverly uses meta-fiction, and this one definitely refers back to itself in such a funny way, by use of social media. (Speaking of which, there is a funny pic at the very end of this post used on one of the most popular social media sites out there, so keep reading for a good laugh.)

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The advent of reality TV, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the others, has turned us into a society where every moment, thought, insight, and personal experience is documented for an audience of millions of strangers. We get validation for every aspect of our lives when we get likes or follows or retweets. This book takes it to an entirely new level, similar to how social media is used in my previous blog The Last Days of Jack Sparks, but here, it documents not just the possession and mental breakdown of a person, but an entire family.

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The book is the story of 13-year old Merry and her memories of her sister Marjorie’s psychological breakdown and subsequent possession – and the TV crew that documented all of it and relayed it to a television audience of millions. Merry is telling the tale in flashback at the age of 23, and recalls her parents’ terror and frustration at Marjorie’s condition, their increasing dire financial straits, and the questions that inevitably arise from such a horrific combination of scenarios.

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Is Marjorie truly possessed by a demonic force? Is she mentally ill? Is she just playing with their heads? Is it child abuse? What makes this book so addictive is that you are never quite sure what is going on. Is the narrator reliable? Who is wrong and what is right? Perception is reality, but then……what constitutes perception? Age? Seeing only what we want to see?

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It’s not so much horrifying – though it is definitely that – as it is uncomfortable. The unease and terror sneak up on you slowly, gradually, disturbingly, and as I got closer to the end, I found myself racing through the pages to see what was happening. If you’re a fan of psychological terror, supernatural horror, and a well-written story that makes you question your own perceptions, this book will definitely send you on a twisted ride.

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In one early scene, Merry is pondering an odd memory of her parents going away for a rare weekend, and wonders if they are leaving because of Marjorie’s behavior, or because of her own strange preference for pasta.

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“Away was the only word the four-year old me remembered. I had no concept of time or distance. Only that they were away, which sounded so weirdly menacing……..I was convinced they went away because they were sick of my eating pasta without spaghetti sauce. Dad had always grumbled about his not believing that I didn’t like the sauce………”

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I love pasta, but of course, it must have some type of sauce. This passage left quite a bit of leeway for cooking, so I decided linguine in a butter-lemon sauce with a creamy lemon chicken piccata was in order, to scare away all those ghosts in my head. This is the method that worked for me, serving 6 people, based on The Pioneer Woman’s delicious recipe. And yes, with requisite tweaks by me. You’re welcome.

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INGREDIENTS
12 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pounded quite thinly (great for stress relief)
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup flour
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup white wine
Juice of 2 whole lemons
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup capers
1/2 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
2 lbs fettuccine, or any long pasta of your choice
Fresh parsley for garnishing
Lemon slices for garnishing

METHOD
In a large skillet over medium heat, heat the butter and the olive oil. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs, and dredge each one in flour. This is a messy step, so an apron is advised.

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Increase the heat to high, and cook the thighs in the skillet for about 10 minutes on each side. You want them nice and browned. Remove and set aside.

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Saute the shallots and chopped basil for about 5 minutes in the chicken pan juices.

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Lower the heat to medium low, and pour in the broth, the wine, the lemon juice, and the capers. Stir together and simmer for 10 minutes.

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Add back in the browned chicken pieces and pour in the juices they’ve accumulated on their platter. Pour in the capers, cover, and cook on low for 25 minutes.

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Remove the chicken pieces, then pour in the heavy cream, stir together, and taste again. Serve over linguine and garnish with lemon slices.

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We ate this fantastic dish with roasted grape tomatoes and mushrooms, and a gorgeous chocolate mousse cake, in honor of my sister’s birthday.

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As you can see, she is addicted to Snapchat filters. Dork that she is.

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The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

The premise of this novel, The Little Paris Bookshop, is that books are medicine for the heart and the soul. I love that idea and believe it’s true.

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Books have been my constant companion since childhood, my comfort when sad, and my solace when all hope seemed lost. I remember my grandmother, Nana Jean, reading to me when I was perhaps three or four years old, and she skipped a few sentences and I immediately told her “Nana, that’s not how it goes!” My mother, in the rare instances that I was disciplined for being bad, had no other alternative but to ground me from reading. I didn’t care about anything else, just my books. And how little has changed.

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The main character, Jean Perdu, has spent years of his life mourning the loss of his married lover, Manon, who wrote him a letter when she left him. He only opens it 20 years later, and its contents spur him into an adventure along the country waterways of France in the large houseboat that is also his book apothecary. It’s a beautiful book that pays homage to grief and letting go of a love long since gone, another theme that has been strong in my life. I spent years loving a man who wasn’t able to love me back in the way that I needed, and though it was the hardest thing I ever did, letting him go and moving forward with my life has reaped many rewards and joys. This book gives us hope that we can still love someone, and yet be able to move on and find new life, new love and new happiness. Reading this book was indeed like medicine for my soul, and reminded me that we can be healed spiritually by the simple joys like delicious food and wonderful books.

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The impetus for Jean’s opening of the letter is when he meets Catherine, a similarly grieving woman, for whom he develops a deep friendship that becomes love. They get to know one another while cooking a simple, yet lovely meal of fish poached in cream and white wine, served with new potatoes roasted in garlic and rosemary, pears and cheese, and some beautiful French wine, a combination so quintessentially French that I was inspired.

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“Catherine had inspected his red mullets, the fresh herbs and the cream from broad-beamed Normandy cows, then held up her small new potatoes and cheese, and gestured to the fragrant pears and to the wine. ‘Can we do something with this lot?’ ‘Yes. But one after the other, not together,’ he said…………Soon the windowpanes had misted up; the gas flames were hissing under the pots and pans; the white wine, shallot and cream sauce was simmering; and in a heavy pan the olive oil was browning potatoes sprinkled with rosemary and salt.”

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Red mullet is nearly impossible to find in landlocked New Mexico, so my friendly fishmonger Ryan at Nantucket Shoals recommended tilapia. So I did. This is the method that worked for me, based on this lovely recipe from Ben O’Donogue of the BBC Saturday Kitchen, with some tasty little twists of my own.

INGREDIENTS

1 finely diced shallot
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Drizzle of olive oil (drizzle being the technical term)
6-7 tilapia fillets
1 cup of good, drinkable white wine. I used Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc.
1 cup of heavy cream
3-4 fresh bay leaves
About a handful of finely chopped flat-leaf parsley – my flavoring twist
Sea salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon of capers – another added twist
Finely chopped almonds
6-7 new or little red potatoes, sliced thinly
1-2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
4-5 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (I got to bust out the mezzaluna for this one!)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely minced

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METHOD

In a large cast-iron or other metal pan, add the drizzle of olive oil and saute the shallots, adding a sprinkle of sea salt to release their moisture and keep them from burning. Saute for about five minutes, until translucent, then add the white wine and the heavy cream. Season with salt and pepper, then add the parsley and bay leaves.

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Stir to mix and let come to a gentle simmer, but keep stirring it so it doesn’t curdle. Lower in the tilapia fillets and cook for about five-10 minutes, or until the fish turns opaque.  You want to make certain the liquid completely covers the fish fillet. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t overcook or undercook. Because, you know, who wants raw fish? This ain’t a sushi blog!

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In a large bowl, add the remaining olive oil, the potato slices, the minced garlic, the rosemary bits, and some sea salt. Mix together with your hands so that everything is nicely coated and harmoniously glistening with oil. Get out a skillet and toss the rosemary-garlic-flecked potatoes into it. Cook over medium-low heat, letting the potatoes dry out and brown, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes darken and crisp, and you can smell the wonderful, starchy scent mingling with the garlic and rosemary. It’s a perfume I would dab behind my ears if I could.

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Transfer the tilapia fillets to a plate with the potatoes, turn up the heat under the pan with the cream and wine, and bring it to a boil. Add a large tablespoon of capers to the liquid. Keep stirring it so that it reduces and thickens into a luscious, unctuously thick sauce. Like this!

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Turn off the heat, give a good last stir, and pour the sauce over the fish and spuds. Garnish with the almonds, which give wonderful crunch and look beautiful! Eat with the sounds of La Vie en Rose running through your imagination, or better yet, imagining you’re on board Jean Perdu’s floating bookshop. Heaven!

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“Books were my friends,” said Catherine……”I think I learned all my feelings from books. In them, I loved and laughed and found out more than in my whole nonreading life.”