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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Bless Me, Última by Rudolfo Anaya

With many thanks to the lovely Karen Michelle for her amazing photographs.

Rudolfo Anaya is considered the seminal author on the Chicano experience. He was born in New Mexico post-WWII, and became an English teacher and then professor at the University of New Mexico. Not an unusual trajectory for a published author, but what makes Anaya unique, both on the world stage and to me personally, is the fact that he really was one of the first published and widely-read Hispanic authors.

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Bless Me, Última was his first published work, and it tells a universal tale of a young boy named Antonio and his coming of age, the mentor – in this case, an old woman called Última who is a curandera (a healer, in Spanish), and some say a witch, as she has an owl that accompanies her everywhere and is her familiar – and his subsequent questioning of all that he has been raised to believe. Antonio and Última’s friendship becomes the bedrock of his life, and from her, he learns the use of herbs as medicine and magic, the nature of good and evil, and what it means to love and lose. In short, all the lessons we learn growing up.

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The reason this book means so much to me is because it was the first book I ever read that actually, and accurately, described what it was like growing up Hispanic in New Mexico. The Spanish phrases that Antonio’s parents use were all used by my grandparents and great-grandparents. All of the healing methods that Última teaches Antonio were used regularly by my Great Granny Baca, and both of my grandmothers. Most vibrantly, I remember Great Granny Baca sweeping up my Great Grandpa Baca’s hair after she’d given him a haircut because “no le quieren las brujas.” If you read the section about the witches – the infamous Trementina sisters and their curse on Antonio’s uncle Lucas – you will know exactly what I am talking about. And of course, the food they ate – beans, chicos, tortillas, atole, green chile – those were the foods I grew up eating.

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I spread the blankets close to the wall and near the stove while Última prepared the atole. My grandfather had brought sugar and cream and two loaves of bread so we had a good meal. “This is good,” I said. I looked at my uncle. He was sleeping peacefully. The fever had not lasted long. “There is much good in blue corn meal,” she smiled. The Indians hold it most sacred, and why not, on the day that we can get Lucas to eat a bowl of atole then he shall be cured. Is that not sacred?”

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Atole is a traditional New Mexico drink made from finely ground blue corn served with hot milk and sugar. It’s very good, although for someone like me, who doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, it’s not something I ever considered making as an adult. I did, however, start thinking about blue corn in general and wondering how it would taste cooked as a sort of savory oatmeal. I’d never cooked with blue corn before, and when I researched cooking methods, ironically, the grossest-sounding recipe for it was on the New Mexico True website, which included quinoa, pinon and raisins. What the hell? Who in their right mind would cook traditional atole with quinoa and raisins? Blech. So I dug a bit more and found this New York Times recipe for blue corn cakes, which I tweaked a bit and used as a basis for my own unique New Mexico dish – savory blue corn cakes with poached eggs and green chile. You can’t tell me that doesn’t sound divine!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup blue corn meal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon caldo de pollo (powdered chicken bouillon)
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs, room temperature, with the yolks separated
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup melted butter
2 whole eggs, room temperature
1 heaping cup of roasted and chopped green chile, flavored with salt, garlic and olive oil, heated through

METHOD
Mix the blue corn meal, the flour, the salt, the pollo de caldo, and the baking powder together. Set aside.

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Whisk the egg yolks with the heavy cream and the water, then beat the egg whites until foamy, add to the yolk and cream mixture, and stir again.

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Gradually add in the blue corn and flour mixture, and add the melted butter. Stir again, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

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Heat a non-stick pan with a teaspoon of olive oil, and in a separate pan, heat together some salted water with a tablespoon of vinegar. This is for poaching the eggs.

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Form small cakes from the blue corn batter.

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Put the blue corn cakes into the hot oil in the pan. Cook for about 1-2 minutes per side. Lay on a platter.

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Poach the eggs. Stir the hot water and vinegar until you get a good whirlpool action going, then gently crack in the eggs and let cook until they firm up.

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Put the blue corn cakes on a plate, and put a poached egg on top. Season with salt and pepper, then ladle over the hot green chile. Eat with joy and happiness in your heart, because this really is New Mexico soul food, with a twist.

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The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

In terms of medieval books, The Canterbury Tales is right up there with Dante’s Inferno as my top favorites. Unless you’re a trained medieval scholar, however, I would strongly recommend reading a more modern English translation of the book, since the medieval English of Chaucer is quite difficult to read.

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The entire book essentially revolves around food, in particular because the overall framework of the book is a storytelling competition, the reward for which is a magnificent feast. Several disparate individuals stop to stay the night at the Tabard Inn in London on their way to the cathedral at Canterbury, on a religious pilgrimage. Harry Bailly is the innkeeper and suggests that the pilgrims all tell a story to pass the time on the journey – the best one wins.

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The pilgrims, among them The Prioress, The Summoner, The Knight, The Miller, The Wife of Bath, The Reeve, The Man of Law, and The Friar, are introduced in a long prologue that describes their various attributes. Then the book is broken into sections consisting of each pilgrim’s tale, as varied as the pilgrims themselves, and are by turns, funny, romantic, adventuresome, bawdy, and at times very sexually explicit.

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Any Chaucer scholar or reader of this book understands the role that food played in this historical context. Food was a clear marker of wealth and social rank. Bread was a customary food across all economic groups, but the wealthy ate finely milled white bread (which was also very unhealthy, not having any nutrients in it.)  Those of the peasant rank ate the brown wheat bread that was healthier but also still with grit and small rocks in it. Wine was to be had by most people, but again, the quality depended on your ability to pay.

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I always liked the description of the Franklin, being referred to as “Epicurus’ own son,” meaning that he greatly enjoyed his food. Part of the lengthy introduction of the book, which is a heavenly description of fish, meat pies, wine, chicken, fat partridges, dainties (candies or pastries), bread and ale. Then, The Summoner is described in foodie terms, as he likes garlic and onion and red wine, which were considered to be unhealthy, so as such, so he is considered in a negative light.

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So, a combination of chicken, wine, spices, and the previously mentioned garlic and onion, seemed in order, and for me, that means coq au vin. With so much leeway in this recipe, I used my own method that’s based on the great Jacques Pépin’s marvelous recipe, using a bit of spice that would have been used in medieval cooking, and served with a salad of arugula, roasted beets, blue cheese, pine nuts, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Enjoy.

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INGREDIENTS
12 chicken thighs, bone in and skin off
1 bottle fruity red wine, like Grenache or Beaujolais
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 strips pancetta, cut into pieces
1 large yellow onion
8 baby carrots, cut lengthwise
3 garlic cloves, slivered
15-20 bella mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fresh parsley
3 bay leaves
1 and 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (substitute for mace, a well-known medieval spice)
Egg noodles (optional)

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METHOD
Marinate the chicken in the red wine, garlic and herbs for up to 6 hours. Reserve the marinade.

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Fry the pancetta in the olive oil, then add the chopped-up onion and cook it for 10 minutes.

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Toss in the carrots and the mushrooms here, stir again, and cook another 10 minutes.

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Add the chicken pieces, pour in the marinade, and add the bay leaves. Mix everything together, and add the nutmeg.

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Pour over the chicken stock, and simmer on low for 2 hours, stirring occasionally and tasting for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed.

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For the last 45 minutes of cooking, add some egg noodles, which will absorb some liquid and thicken it. Taste again and season as needed.

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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

Thanks to TB for the photography.

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read it several times. Though it’s a very irreverent re-telling of the life of Jesus, I didn’t find it at all disrespectful. It is a fictional retelling, of course, but very much grounded in historical research and definitely holds to the details of Jesus’s life that are in the Bible.

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Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, is the story of the life of history’s most famous person told by his best friend and sidekick. Josh – Joshua bar Joseph and who would later come to be known as Jesus Christ – is a serious-minded kid, as you’d guess. Biff, his best friend, is the opposite: loud, rabble-rousing, a total smart-ass, and a total womanizer. He’s pretty awesome.

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Being raised Catholic and to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ as opposed to his humanity, reading this book and seeing another version of Jesus as a man, with the same hopes, fears, desires, and cares, is truly beautiful. The Gospels often portray Jesus in such conflicting terms, though I do realize they were written very much as propaganda to further the newly-hatched Christian religion, but for me, seeing the disparate elements of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John so seamlessly melded into Josh’s character made me relate even more to him.

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The story is told in two timeframes: the life of Josh and the many adventures he and Biff have; and Biff in the present time writing his Gospel of memories and adventures with Josh. The boys travel with their families to Jerusalem for high holy days, encounter Roman soldiers, meet Mary Magdalene  -Maggie – and fall in love with her, and go in search of the three Magi who came to see Josh at his birth. Much of the book is their quest to find Balthazar, Gaspar and Melchior – respectively, in Afghanistan, China, and India. Josh learns from the three wise men the tenets of the Tao; the Zen school; and Buddhism, which all affect his later ministry. Biff learns the art of the Kama Sutra, the skills of martial arts and how to kill with a touch, how to create weapons, and how to charm women. In other words, all the things that Josh, as the Son of God and Bringer of Peace, can’t know. They make a great team, as they perfectly complement each other – yin and yang, carnal vs. spiritual.

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Possibly one of the most hilarious and touching moments in this book, and some clever foreshadowing, is when the origin of the Easter Bunny is explained, as a drunken Josh sits on a hill overlooking Jerusalem near Passover, cuddles baby rabbits, and declares “Henceforth and from now on, I decree that whenever something bad happens to me, there shall be bunnies around.” It’s characteristic of the book as a whole – so funny and yet poignantly moving because we all know what is going to happen to Josh. And so it does.

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In modern times, Biff is brought back from death to write his own gospel by the angel Raziel, who is sent by one of the archangels to fetch him. The archangel gives Raziel his instructions and something else to do.

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“Go get the good news, Raziel. Bring me back some chocolate.” “Chocolate?” “It’s a dirt-dweller snack……..Satan invented it.” “Devil’s food?” “You can only eat so much white cake, my friend.”

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Being Easter Sunday, a chocolate Devil’s Food Cake seemed extremely appropriate for my family lunch, especially because my very Catholic grandmother was there, and the look on her face when I told her what we were having for dessert, was priceless. To her credit, she then started laughing, so she gets points for having a sense of humor AND for tolerating me as her granddaughter.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on my idol Nigella Lawson’s delectable Devil’s Food Cake recipe, with the requisite flavor tweaks by the Easter Bunny.

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INGREDIENTS
For the cake
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup boiling-hot instant espresso
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 and 1/2 cups plain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon almond extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature

For the frosting
1/2 cup instant espresso, cooled
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
10 ounces of dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids, broken into pieces

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F, spray two baking pans with butter spray, and line the bottoms with parchment rounds. Then, mix the cocoa powder and the sugar with the boiling hot espresso.

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Cream the butter with the sugar until fluffy.

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Mix together the flour, baking powder and baking soda together in another bowl.

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Add the vanilla and almond extracts to the butter-sugar mixture, stir to mix, then add the eggs.

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One cup at a time, add the flour to the butter-sugar, stir to mix well, then add the next cup of flour. Do this until all the flour is combined.

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Mix in the chocolate-cocoa-espresso combination, and whisk until well combined and makes a smooth and chocolatey batter.

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Divide the batter between the two baking pans, bake for about 20 minutes, and check on them twice to make sure they are not overbaking. That would suck.

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While the cakes are baking, put the cooled espresso, the brown sugar, and the butter into a small pan over low heat.

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Once bubbling, add the chocolate pieces and whisk until they melt and are mixed together into the butter and thicken into a frosting.

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Let the cakes cool completely before attempting to frost them. Please trust me on this. I’m saving you many dropped F-bombs with this advice. Set one cake round on your fancy cake display and frost the sides and top.

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Set the other cake round on top of the frosted one, and proceed in the same manner. Then, just eat, with a choir of heavenly angels singing in your ear.

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