The Chef’s Secret by Crystal King

Historical fiction is probably my favorite genre in the world, and anything set in my spirit country of Italy even more so. This marvelous book, The Chef’s Secret, not only meets both of those criteria, but it’s also about FOOD! And FORBIDDEN LOVE! and MYSTERY! And MORE FOOD! OK, I’ll calm down now, but you see why I am so excited about it. Aside from the fact that the author, the wonderful Crystal King, asked me to be part of the book’s publication by submitting a recipe for the companion e-cookbook, this book itself is so beautifully written, so full of familial and romantic and culinary love, that I, too, fell in love with it.

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Have you heard of Bartolomeo Scappi? Before Julia Child, before Jacques P√©pin, before Emeril Lagasse and Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten and (my dearly departed future ex-husband) Anthony Bourdain, before the heyday of modern celebrity chefs, there was the immortal Scappi. He was personal chef to numerous cardinals and Pope Pius IV, was known to cook such exotic items as peacock, alligator and even fried chicken, and came to world fame when his meisterwork Opera dell’arte del cucinare was published in 1570. Though little is known about his personal life, this book tells the fictionalized account of his life in Renaissance Italy. And what a life it was!

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Scappi has just died in the opening pages, and his nephew Giovanni is mourning him terribly. Giovanni is the son of Scappi’s sister, and has been apprenticed to learn everything there is to be learned from his culinary genius uncle, and in fact, Scappi leaves him the bulk of his fortune, estate, and his collection of recipes that are hotly pursued and contested by rival chefs of the time. Among the papers he leaves to Giovanni is one book he requests be destroyed without being read. Well, in what literary world do you think THAT is going to happen? Of course Giovanni reads it, finding that it is written in a secret code, and attempts to decipher the mystery at the heart of his uncle’s life – the identity of the woman for whom Scappi had a deep, beautiful, abiding and forbidden love, whom he called “Stella” to protect her identity, and that colors the rest of Scappi’s life, and affects Giovanni in unexpected ways.

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Of course, this book brims over with luscious food passages and descriptions of simple meals, feasts, instructions on various kitchen utensils and equipment, table setting suggestions, and my personal favorite – roses carved from radishes by Scappi to show his love for “Stella.” But my own inspiration for the recipe I am detailing below and that was part of the wonderful e-cookbook, actually came from the passage when Giovanni meets Doctor Boccia in the street after Scappi’s death, and Boccia affectionately calls him “polpetta,” his endearing nickname for Giovanni reminding them both how they met when Giovanni was a young chef’s apprentice making meatballs.

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I was also incredibly touched, perhaps because I lost my mother to cancer during the time I was reading the book and developing this recipe, when I read the moving journal passage by Scappi’s affectionate family nickname for Giovanni – “little onion, cipollino.” Both affectionate names for Giovanni showed how loved he was by these figures in his life, which is the heart of the book after all.

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In Italian, what I made could be called polpette di vitello con pinoli, e cipolla con una riduzione di aceto balsamico, which has a lovely and poetic ring to it, in my humble opinion. ūüôā With that in mind, let’s go make some meatballs and onions in a balsamic reduction!

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For the meatballs:
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh sage
1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 teaspoon sea salt
Ground black pepper
2 large eggs, room temperature

Heat the oven to 400F. In a dry, hot pan, toast the pine nuts until they are golden brown and give off a nutty scent. Don’t let them burn. Remove from heat and allow to cool while you mix the other ingredients.

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With your hands, mix together the beef and pork. Add in the garlic, the parsley and the sage, and mix again.

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Add in the 1/4 cup of Asiago cheese and the cooled pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper.

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Add the eggs, and mix together again with your hands.

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Form small balls and lay them on a parchment-covered baking tray. Bake for 25 minutes.

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For the cipolline onions:
12 cipolline onions
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Lower the oven temperature to 350F. Peel the onions, trim the stems, cut them in half, and rinse them. Pat dry.

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Finely mince the rosemary.

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Heat a cast iron pan over medium high heat and and add the butter, the onions and sprinkle over the rosemary. Cook for 5-7 minutes on the stove.

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Transfer to the oven and bake for 35 minutes, until they brown and soften.

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For the balsamic reduction:
2 cups good quality balsamic vinegar. I used a Pinot Noir balsamic vinegar.
1 crushed clove of garlic

Pour balsamic vinegar into a metal saucepan, and add the crushed garlic clove.

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Boil on medium for roughly 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will reduce to a thick, syrupy glaze. Don’t leave it because the sugars in the balsamic vinegar can burn.

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Remove the garlic clove, and let cool slightly. Pour over the meatballs and cippoline onions. Eat immediately, with a glass of good red wine, and the spirit of Bartolomeo Scappi watching over you.

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The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

I have to say I’m a bit peeved by this book. The Dinner List has a totally fascinating premise that takes that old idea of picking five people you’d want to have dinner with, whether living or dead, and runs with it………..and then, sadly, totally drops the ball. The main character, Sabrina, is having her 30th birthday dinner with her best friend, when unexpectedly, five people show up, including the late, great Audrey Hepburn.

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Yes, Audrey is a guest at this dinner party. Turns out that Sabrina was named after the iconic, eponymous character from Audrey’s film also starring Humphrey Bogart. The other guests are people who Sabrina hasn’t seen for years and all of whom have had a significant impact on her life. Her long-lost father shows up, an influential professor from her college days, and Tobias, who is presented as her ex with whom she lived for many years. So yes, the premise is fascinating and had so much potential to be a wonderful book about our life influences, who we would like to see and talk to, the meaning of life, etc. But irritatingly, it ends up being a treatise on getting over one’s first love. In other words, it’s chick-lit and we all know how I feel about chick-lit. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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It turns out Tobias and Sabrina have split up and she is still trying to come to terms with their breakup. They’ve had a typical long-term relationship – meeting in college, becoming involved, breaking up and reuniting, blah blah blah. Literally nothing in their relationship was unique. They were like any other couple. I think what gradually began to wear on me was the fact that this book has one of the most fascinating literary devices I’ve read about in ages – the dinner party with five people of your choice from history or from real life who can be either living or dead – and uses it as the backdrop for what ends up being a rather pedestrian and boring love story.¬† (sigh) And of course, the great shocker, the major “wow” moment of the book is something that I had figured out from Chapter 2.¬† SPOILER ALERT: Tobias is already dead and that’s why she has to get over him and that’s why he showed up to this dinner party.

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Well hell, no one could have seen that one coming. (As I roll my eyes in exasperation.) I mean, come on. If you could pick any five people from anytime in history to break bread with, wouldn’t you, firstly, choose people with whom you could have conversations about the meaning of life, etc? Don’t you think you’d want to talk about their lives, their impact on the world? My five dinner party guests would include Jesus of Nazareth, Cleopatra, Johannes Gutenberg, Barack Obama and Miguel de Cervantes, and I promise you that we wouldn’t spend a moment talking about our love lives. So therein lies the root of my annoyance. I hate to waste valuable time reading a book that ends up being so completely different from what I supposed it to be. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nicely written and again, the premise had so much potential. But the final execution was just……simplistic, pedestrian. Meh.¬†However, the¬†redeeming feature of the book are the food passages, like this one.

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The waiter comes over for the second time and I just jump in. “I’ll have the frise√© salad and the risotto,” I say. I send Conrad a look. He nods. “The scallops,” he says. And some of those aphrodisiacs.” The waiter looks confused. He opens his mouth and closes it again. “Oysters,” Audrey clarifies wearily. “I’ll have the same, with the frise√© salad.”

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Doesn’t risotto with seafood sound DIVINE? I chose to use shrimp with mine, based on this recipe from The Proud Italian Cook blog.

INGREDIENTS
1 large butternut squash
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 carrot, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 celery rib, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup good quality white wine
4 cups homemade stock. I used my precious last jar of turkey stock from Thanksgiving.
6-7 sage leaves
1 lb raw shrimp, thawed, deveined and shelled
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Peel, seed and cube the butternut squash, and roast at 425F for 20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

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Heat the stock in a large saucepot until simmering, then lower the heat so it stays hot but isn’t boiling.

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Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet, and sauté the carrot, shallot, celery and garlic for about 10 minutes, until fragrant. Sprinkle over some salt at the beginning of cooking.

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Add the Arborio rice to the cooked vegetables, stir together so that the oil and vegetables coat the rice and the rice toasts a bit (called la tostatura) but don’t let the rice burn. Stir for about 5 minutes.

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Splash in the half-cup of white wine and stir again.

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Add in one ladleful of hot stock to the rice and stir until the liquid absorbs. Plan on this part of the process taking about 20-30 minutes so be patient and have your own glass of wine nearby. Keep adding one ladleful of stock at a time and stirring until the liquid absorbs, before adding more. It’s really rather Zen to do, calming and soothing.

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After about half an hour, the rice should have absorbed all the liquid and cooked to a fluffy yet al dente (to the tooth) consistency, meaning it should still have a bit of bite in texture. Add in the butternut squash and stir together to mix.

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In a hot stovetop grill pan, cook the shrimp about 2 minutes per side, until pink and cooked through.

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Add to the rice and squash mixture, and toss over some finely chopped fresh sage. Salt and pepper to taste, and apply to your face. DIVINE!

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

In honor of this month’s Fandom Foodie recipe takeover,¬†of which I am the host and the theme of which is food based on Mexican literature and/or inspired by Day of the Dead – el Dia de los Muertos – as well as my adoration for this marvelous book Like Water for Chocolate, I decided to recreate the stuffed poblano peppers that Tita, the main character, makes for a wedding near the end of the book. This wonderful novel, which features a collection of recipes from turn-of-the-century Mexico, is also a sweet and tender love story, and also details the history, secrets, lies and loves of the De La Garza family.

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I loved this book as much for the cooking and luscious food descriptions as for the familiar family problems outlined. The bossy, mean matriarch of the family, her three daughters who play the traditional roles – for awhile, anyway – and the absent father. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of my own family dynamic growing up, and though we didn’t grow up on a farm near the Texas/Mexico border and though my sisters and I took care of my mother during her last illness and though there was love between all of us, there was still a painful dynamic at work in our coming-of-age. I would characterize my late mother’s relationship with her three daughters as complex.

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Back to the book. It’s a compendium of marvelous recipes such as quail with rose petal sauce, Christmas rolls stuffed with delicious ground meat, and a few other interesting variants. But for me, my ultimate, favorite recipe in this book (and my favorite food in Mexican cuisine) is the stuffed pepper. This particular recipe is called chiles en nogada. Here in my home state of New Mexico, stuffed peppers are called chiles rellenos, and different kinds of chile peppers can be used, which you stuff with cheese, then lightly coat in batter and fry. What’s nice about this particular recipe is that it doesn’t call for frying and you really can play around with the stuffing and flavors. Roasting and steaming the peppers and removing their skins is time-consuming, so this is one of those things you make with an entire afternoon to while away and want to really enjoy the creative process of cooking.

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Traditionally, this recipe uses only poblano chiles, but I wanted to honor my New Mexico heritage, so I threw a couple of Hatch green chiles into the mix, and made a few additional tweaks, which I will detail below. Serve with icy-cold Mexican beer or, my personal preference, a nice, sipping shot of good-quality tequila, or indeed, with a nice deep red wine. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

4 poblano chiles
2 Hatch green chiles
3/4 lb of ground beef, preferably 90% lean
1 cup of walnuts, toasted in a dry, hot pan

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Salt
Half a finely diced red onion
3 cloves of garlic, finely diced
1 cup blue cheese crumbles (my twist on flavoring)
1 cup Cotija cheese crumbles

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1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (use sparingly)
1 cup Mexican crema
1 cup pomegranate anils

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METHOD

Turn on the oven broiler. When super hot, rub olive oil on the six chile peppers, put them on a flat baking tray, and roast them about 10-15 minutes, turning every 5 minutes so the peppers blacken on all sides. Remove from the oven and seal in an airtight plastic bag, and cover with a warm, damp cloth. The steam will further cook the peppers and make the skins easier to peel (in theory.)

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While the peppers are roasting and cooling, cook the ground beef, seasoning with salt, a bit of black pepper and a bit of cinnamon. When cooked through, remove to a plate and cook the onions and the garlic with a bit more salt until soft and translucent. Add the cooked ground beef to the onions and stir to mix again. Let cool slightly, then add the blue cheese crumbles and the Cotija crumbles to the meat-onion mixture. Add a large tablespoon of the toasted walnuts to the mixture, and stir so that everything is well mixed.

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Take the cooked, skinned peppers and make a slit down the middle. Rub some oil, grapeseed or olive, onto your hands like you’re putting on hand lotion. This will keep the seeds from burning your hands as you remove the stem and seeds from the chiles. Rinse and let dry.

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Put the Mexican crema, half the toasted walnuts, the rest of the blue cheese, a spoonful of the Cotija cheese, salt, pepper and another small bit of cinnamon, into a blender and blend until you have a smooth, creamy sauce.

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Fill the roasted, peeled chiles with the meat-onion-walnut-cheese mixture. Cover with the velvety white cream sauce, and garnish with pomegranates and the rest of the toasted walnuts. They are truly delicious, very subtle flavoring from the cinnamon which lightly offsets the tangy cheese and heat of the chiles.

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Not to mention they are simply gorgeous to behold!

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“The chiles not only looked good, they were indeed delicious – never before had Tita done such a marvelous job with them. The platters of chiles proudly wore the colors of the flag: the green of the chiles, the white of the nut sauce, and the red of the pomegranates.”

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