Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

I went into this book expecting a nice, escapist type of read as I recovered from minor outpatient surgery this past weekend. It was recommended by two friends of mine as a book filled with art and food and set in France, and both of them were sure I’d love it. I minored in Art History and of course, I am a foodie par excellence and love travel, so I gave it a whirl. When you’re recuperating from any medical procedure, minor or major, you don’t really want anything too heavy or deep.

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(sigh) That being said, Lisette’s List was boring. I’m sorry, I hate to slam on books and writers because God knows, I am not an author. The author of this book, Susan Vreeland, had previously written a wonderful novel called Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which told the story of a Dutch painting and its owners starting in modern times and going back through when it was painted, in a series of interconnected short tales. It was beautifully written and moved along brilliantly. This book? Not so much.

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The basic premise is a young woman, Lisette, who moves with her husband Andre, to a small town in Provence to help care for Andre’s ailing grandfather Pascal in the late 1930s. Pascal, before he dies, gradually teaches Lisette about painting and colors and life. Sounds nice, right? It’s not. Dull. Andre goes off to fight the Nazis and of course, dies. Before he went off to fight, he hid away some family paintings worth millions. The rest of book is the tale of Lisette moving away from Provence, following her “list” that she had put together with Pascal of all the things she wanted to do with her life, including finding those family paintings before the Nazis get their nasty little hands on them.

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The book had a lot of promise, and the basic premise could have been done so much better. And of course, the lavish descriptions of rural French country towns, the art itself and the luscious food so typical of Provence and southern France were really the redeeming parts of the book. But the main character, Lisette, doesn’t ever really develop much as a character and in fact, makes some decisions which are downright annoyingly stupid. I mean, if you’re savvy enough to go off on your own throughout southern France in search of valuable family paintings, you’re surely smart enough to figure out who is your enemy. Anyhoo…..

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Like I said, the food descriptions were wonderful and in some cases, mouth-watering. There were any number of food passages I could have reenacted, but this particular dish sounded both intriguing and perfect for the current late summer bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes that are on jewel-like, glowing display at every grower’s market. I was lucky enough to have purchased a large bag of organic heirlooms last week and decided to put them to delicious use.

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Soon, Odette’s daughter, Sandrine, whose brother Michel, would come home someday, and Madame Pinatel, the mayor’s wife, came to pay their respects. Then Melanie brought two jars of canned cherries from their trees and a bag of raisins. Aloys Biron, the butcher, brought a large salami. Most unexpectedly, Madame Bonnelly, a stout woman with thick arms whom I had never met, brought a gratin d’aubergines, an eggplant-and-tomato pie garnished with breadcrumbs.

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I have a love-hate relationship with eggplant, but the idea of a tomato pie sounded luscious, so I did a little culinary research and came up with this method which is a combination of Elise Bauer’s recipe from Simply Recipes and a long-remembered recipe from Southern Living I read about a few years ago.

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INGREDIENTS:
1 and 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons ice-cold water
1 pound heirloom tomatoes, preferably fresh and organic
4 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1 cup of mixed shredded cheeses. I used sharp cheddar, pepperjack and Gruyere
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

METHOD:
For the piecrust:

Combine the flour with a teaspoon of salt, and gradually mix in the butter one small cube at a time. Add the water a bit at a time until the dough comes together in your Kitchen Aid and forms a ball. Wrap in plastic and freeze overnight.

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For the filling:

Slice the tomatoes, lie them out on some parchment paper, and sprinkle over salt and garlic powder. Leave to drain overnight.

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Mix together all the cheeses except for the Parmesan, then mince the garlic and add it to the cheese mixture.

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Add in the mayonnaise and the Greek yogurt and stir to mix well.

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Finely mince the  shallot.

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Heat the oven to 350F and roll out your cold piecrust to roughly 12 inches diameter, then press into a pie pan.

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Blind-bake the crust for 15 minutes, remove and prick the bottom of the crust a few times, and bake another 10 minutes. Sprinkle the shallots into the bottom.

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Spoon over the cheese-mayo-yogurt mixture and spread across so that it cover the pie base and shallot-garlic mix.

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Lay the tomatoes in overlapping circles over the cheese mixture, and sprinkle the Parmesan over the top.

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Bake for 30 minutes, or until the Parm is nicely golden brown. Apply to your face.

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The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

You can almost feel the Italian heat baking down, and smell the bougainvillea flowers, as you read this evocative novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Tom Ripley is a young man from New York, struggling to make something of himself. He’s approached by Mr. Greenleaf who mistakes him for a close college friend of his son, Dickie, who has run off to seaside Italy and essentially gone native there, living in a little house with his girlfriend Marge.

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Mr. Greenleaf offers Tom money to go to Italy and persuade Dickie to come back and resume a “normal” life. Tom meets Dickie and becomes caught up in the other man’s life, obsessively. They bond and become great friends, but several flies in the ointment, including Dickie’s quasi-girlfriend Marge and his obnoxious drinking buddy Freddie Miles, soon threaten their close bond.

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What makes Tom Ripley such a fascinating character study, psychopath that he is, is because we can all relate to him – having feelings of alienation and wanting to find an identity that matches our images of ourselves. Ripley is self-aware on a bizarre level, understanding his two identities and even acknowledging what he’s done by justifying his actions to others and himself. Yet for all the evil deeds he does, he’s not a classic antagonist. He is living his “normal,” as we all are, and the fact that I could sympathize and root for him and understand his motivations tells me that this book was written by a master. It didn’t hurt that the characters of Dickie, Marge and Freddie were all such annoying little prigs.

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Set primarily in Italy, then in France, the scenes in these countries evoke so wonderfully the Mediterranean sun and sea, the taste of salt from the ocean, the sound of boats and birds and busy harbors, and the marvelous flavors that these two countries sometimes share. When Tom is invited to Dickie’s house in Italy for the first time, Sunday lunch is being cooked by Marge – a roast chicken and artichokes –  two of my favorite foods. Yum!

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“The climb up the hill to Dickie’s house didn’t seem half so long as before. Delicious smells of roasting chicken drifted out on the terrace……….’I’m waiting for the darn artichokes to get done. You know that front hole. It’ll barely make anything come to a boil.'”

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Having recently gotten my hot little hands on some culinary lavender, I decided a riff on the classic Sunday roast chicken was in order, spiced up with lavender, lemons, garlic, new potatoes and of course, artichoke hearts – a wonderful melding of the flavors of France and Italy. Oooh la la, or as we tend to say here in New Mexico, oooooh a la!

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 large chicken, about a 6-lb roaster will do.
2 large lemons
2 heads of garlic
1 cup dried lavender granules
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups of artichoke hearts, drained and cut into long chunks
4-5 small red potatoes, cut in half
10-12 sprigs of fresh thyme

METHOD
Your chicken should be at room temperature before roasting, so take it out of the refrigerator a good hour before starting preparations.

Pre-heat the oven to 360F. Butterfly the chicken. This is much easier than you might think. Turn the bird breast-side down, tailside facing you, and cut out the backbone using very sharp kitchen scissors. Then turn it over and press down on it so it flattens and looks like a butterfly. Hence the term “butterfly the chicken.” This YouTube video was how I learned, and it was so easy. If a total klutz like me can butterfly a chicken, you most certainly can! Trust me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-8tMEwBnSA

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Once the chicken is laid out nicely in a large roasting pan, salt and pepper it well. Slice the lemons somewhat thinly, and lay them across the skin of the bird. Tuck some of the lemon slices between the skin and the meat, as well. This helps tenderize the bird and gives more flavor to the skin. Keep half of one of the lemons for later.

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Around the chicken, dot the artichoke hearts, the garlic cloves still in their papery skins, and the potatoes. The idea with the garlic is that they will steam inside the skins and come out soft and sweet and mellow and delicious. Everything looks beautiful in the pan, too.

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Pour the olive oil over the bird and the surrounding vegetables, ensuring everything is well-coated. Add a splash of good red wine, then squeeze the juice of the remaining half lemon over the vegetables. For the final touch, scatter over the dried lavender and the thyme sprigs. The scent is heavenly, spicy and floral and warm at the same time.

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Cover the bird and roast for 2 hours. The smell of the bird cooking, mingled with the lavender and all the yummy vegetables, will make your mouth water. At the 2-hour mark, remove from the oven, increase the heat to 425F, take off the cover, and baste the chicken and vegetable with the pan drippings that have collected at the bottom of the pan. Pour in some chicken broth if you think it looks dry. Tuck the uncovered pan back in the oven and roast under the high heat for another 25 minutes, so the skin darkens and crisps up. Keep an eye on it, though, to make sure the vegetables don’t burn.

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Remove the chicken from the oven, sprinkle over some sea salt, and let the dish rest for a good 10-15 minutes. Then serve and eat with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. But don’t actually START singing. You’ll frighten your guests and they’ll start thinking you’re a madman like Tom Ripley or something.

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The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley

Having just finished binge-watching Versailles on Netflix, I can say, hand over heart, that I would have made a DAMN fine royal mistress to Louis XIV. I could totally pull off silk gowns, elaborate jewels, illicit love affairs, intrigue……….sounds like my dream life! If anyone knows a king out there who’d appreciate my cooking, do send him my way.

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Watching the exploits of the young French king and his mistress The Marquise de Montespan made me remember this fine gem of a novel, The Oracle Glass, set during the years of the King and La Montespan’s notorious affair. The book is so finely drawn that you almost feel yourself in the King’s morning levee, watching his most intimate bodily functions as though they were performed by God himself. Which, I suppose, was the idea.

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The book’s heroine, young Genevieve Pasquier, is booted from her once-grand family home into the streets of Paris where she is found and apprenticed by Catherine Montvoisin, known for helping other “down and out” women.” However, La Voisin, as she was called, is not just any altruistic soul. She’s a witch, a practitioner of Dark Arts, an abortionist, and a poisoner of the highest order. Genevieve is taken in because she has a psychic ability to read the oracle glass, a large crystal bowl filled with water, in which she can see the future, and La Voisin takes advantage of this talent for her own nefarious purposes. La Voisin gets Genevieve accepted in court circles by having her pretend to be a 200-year old widow whose life is preserved through a pact with the Devil, and so she becomes involved with court politics when she is asked to become the Marquise de Montespan’s glass reader.

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The actual “Affaire des Poisons” – go ahead, Google it – is a major piece of French history during the reign of the Sun King, and the Marquise de Montespan figures very prominently, as well as numerous other members of French royalty and nobility. But it’s the entertaining fictional character of Genevieve who was my favorite. I could relate to her because she and I have much in common – we are voracious readers, analytical overthinkers, armchair philosophers; and we love the finer things in life such as beautiful surroundings, elegant clothes, and handsome men who are highly intelligent. In one area, though, we differ. Genevieve’s sweet tooth nearly gets her poisoned when she crosses La Voisin, who slips her some tainted marzipan.

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Marzipan – almond paste – is Genevieve’s weakness, but not having much of a sweet tooth myself, I still thought it would be a fun challenge to make marzipan from scratch and then use it to make a decadent marzipan cake frosted with chocolate ganache and cherries. So I did, having my own bit of kitchen witchcraft today. NOTE: the marzipan should be made a day in advance so it can chill overnight.

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INGREDIENTS
For the marzipan:
1 and 1/2 cups finely ground almond flour
1 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 teaspoon rosewater
1 egg white, room temperature

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For the cake:
1 and 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened and at room temperature
Butter spray and a dusting of flour
1 cup marzipan, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
1 egg yolk, room temperature
1 tablespoon almond extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

For the ganache icing and cake topping:
3/4 cup dark chocolate pieces, 70% cocoa solids
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup pitted cherries or half a can of cherry pie filling

METHOD:
Add flour and powdered sugar into a food processor and pulse until combined.

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Add the almond extract and rose water and pulse again, then add the egg white and process until you have a thick doughlike paste.

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Turn out the almond dough onto some plastic wrap, seal it and form it into a cylinder. Refrigerate overnight. When ready to use, leave out of the fridge an hour so it’s at room temperature. Pre-heat the oven to 350F. Spray a 9-inch round cake pan with butter spray and lightly flour it.

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Mix the almond paste and sugar on low in your most awesome Kitchen Aid, using the paddle attachment.

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Add the butter, then incorporate the eggs and yolk, one at a time.

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Add the almond extract.

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Whisk together the flour and the baking powder in a small bowl, and gradually add to the wet ingredients. Pour the mixture into the buttered, floured cake pan.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes, checking occasionally. Let it cool completely before icing it.

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Place the cream in a small saucepan over very low heat, until small bubbles just form around the edge. Add the chocolate pieces and the almond extract, whisk in, turn off the heat, and leave covered for up to 15 minutes. Then, whisk together until the ganache thickens and forms a gorgeous chocolate frosting.

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Frost the top of the cake, sprinkle the edges with slivered almonds, and decorate the center with the cherries. Vive la France! Louis XIV would add me to his list of mistresses once having eaten this tasty dessert, I do believe.

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Thanks to MC for the photography.

This is one of those epic books that feature a cast of thousands, exotic locations that span the globe, stories within stories within stories…………and Count Dracula. I mean, how can it possibly get better than that?

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Being a former Goth girl, I still have a fondness for the darker side of things. Vampires, crucifixes, ghosts, vintage clothing and jewelry, steampunk-Romantic styles, and movies and books that feature such themes as death, spirits, things that go bump in the night and of course, passionate romance. Though I have to (somewhat) conform in my day-to-day life where I play a bureaucrat, my heart is always in the coffin with Count Dracula. Love, love, love Dracula and vampires in general.

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The Historian‘s premise is simple. It postulates that Dracula – Vlad Dracul – is not just a vampire in a book, but is actually alive and well and has been preying on people across centuries and throughout continents. A young scholar named Paul is given the charge to find Dracula when his graduate advisor and mentor, Professor Rossi, mysteriously disappears under ominous circumstances. Mixed up in this puzzle are antique, leather-bound books, each bearing the distinctive stamp of a dragon – Dracula means dragon in Romanian.

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Paul becomes enmeshed in both the search for the blood-drinking Count and with the lovely and stoic Helen, whose Eastern European lineage connects her with the Count in ways no one would imagine. Told from the viewpoint of Paul and Helen’s daughter – with a nod to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca as her name is never revealed – the story has multiple levels, told in three different timepoints and told in the form of journal entries, letters, telegrams and book passages. It’s a book for book lovers, if you know what I mean.

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This is my ultimate type of book. Long, detailed, globe-trotting, with amazing descriptions of architecture, literature, love, and food from countries as diverse as Russia, France, Spain, Slovakia, Greece, Turkey, The Netherlands, Great Britain, the United States, and oh so many others! My favorite of all of them was when Paul takes his daughter to visit friends in Italy, and they are served an Italian torta, which is a flourless cake made with ground nuts in place of flour.

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Giulia lit a lantern on the sideboard, turning off the electric light. She brought the lantern to the table and began to cut up a torta I’d been trying not to stare at earlier. Its surface gleamed like obsidian under the knife.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the marvelous recipe at Proud Italian Cook’s awesome food blog, but of course with my usual tweaks. I used both hazelnuts and almonds, because I love the flavors together, I added some almond extract and some amaretto, and for more flavor, I toasted the nuts before grinding them in my food chopper. Nom nom nom!

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INGREDIENTS
1 cup of ground hazelnuts and ground almonds, to make a nut flour
1 cup sugar
6 ounces good-quality dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids or above
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
Heavy cream, whipped with sugar, amaretto and lemon
Hulled strawberries for decorating

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METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

Lightly butter or oil an 8-inch cake pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. Toast the hazelnuts and almonds in a dry pan until they darken and you can smell the nutty scent.

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Grind up the nuts in a food processor, so that you have a rubbly texture. The smell is out of this world!

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Break the chocolate into shards or chunks, and melt in a Pyrex bowl set over a pan of boiling water. Let the chocolate melt, stirring occasionally

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Add the butter to the melting chocolate, and add in the almond essence and the Amaretto.

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Separate the eggs, and whip the egg whites in your most awesome Kitchen Aid so that you get a cloudlike texture. If you wipe the inside of your Kitchen Aid bowl with lemon first, it really helps make the egg whites puff up.

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Whisk the egg yolks and add to the ground nuts. Add in the sugar.

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Mix the gooey, yummy, melted chocolate into the nut mixture.

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Fold the egg white mixture into the chocolate-nut mixture, using the figure-8 hand method. This method ensures air gets into the batter, making it even more light and fluffy and less apt to sink in the center, though it probably will sink. That’s just life. And cakes.

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Scrape the luscious batter into the cake pan, and bake for 18 minutes. Yes, I said 18 minutes, because that is apparently the timeframe used by the majority of the Italians I know, who make this cake regularly. I don’t ask questions of the experts, I just do what I am told.

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Allow the cake to cool for up to 1 hour before taking out of the cake pan. It likely will sink in the center as it cools, and you will just have to accept that, pick up the pieces of your shattered life, and move on.

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Serve the cake garnished with lemony whipped cream and strawberries. The cake’s richness needs an offset, and the citrus contrast in the cream is perfect with the nutty denseness. Plus it looks so pretty!

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It is a luscious cake, gooey and rich and almost melting in the center, but with the exterior forming almost a crust. Texture-wise, it’s like heaven. Flavorwise, it’s like heaven. Aesthetically, it’s like heaven.

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Chocolat by Joanne Harris

The problem with Chocolat is that it is filled to bursting with delicious and delectable food descriptions, as you’d expect. Meringues, chocolate ice cream, any and all type of chocolate candies, a bavarois chocolate cake with caramel icing, crystallized violet candies……….but there are also savory delights to be read about! Fruits du mer, vol au vents, lobster with mayonnaise and lemon, cheeses with a tomato salad and black olives, walnut bread, French champagne! It’s almost overwhelming, the sheer amount of deliciousness in this book. How the hell does one choose only one thing to recreate?

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This is a book about the power of food as medicine, the power of life over death, the power of pleasure over abstinence, the power of women and their magic – not the power of women over men but rather, what they can accomplish when they meet as equals – and most pleasurably, the sheer joy and sweetness of life, epitomized by that lush, luxurious, dark, divine, delicious chocolate. I have never agreed with the adage that life is meant for suffering and that the reward will come after we die. Call me a radical, an agnostic, a disbeliever, a bad Catholic………..that’s fine. I wholeheartedly believe that life is meant to be savored, enjoyed, tasted, kissed, embraced, made love to………which is why I love this book so much, because it believes it, too.

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The premise of the book is simple. A woman, Vianne, and her young daughter Anouk, come to the small French town of Lansquenet. They open an artisanal chocolate shop, and slowly begin to win over the hearts – and tastebuds – of the residents, most of whom are under the thrall of the town mayor, Reynaud. The town and its residents are staid, respectable, do not question authority, and generally do what is expected of them. When Vianne and her mouth-watering chocolates come to town, it turns everything upside down.

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It’s good to have things turned upside down in life once in awhile. If you don’t take those unexpected opportunities that come your way, if you don’t stop and enjoy the smoothness of a good red wine or taste the sweetness of a luscious meal or savor the passion that another person unexpectedly invokes in you……..you’re not living life to the fullest.

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“The dessert is a chocolate fondue. Make it on a clear day – cloudy weather dims the gloss on the melted chocolate – with seventy percent dark chocolate, butter, a little almond oil, double cream added at the very last minute, heated gently over a burner. Skewer pieces of cake or fruit and dip into the chocolate mixture.”

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I’m not much for sweets, as anyone in my family or circle of friends can tell you. My taste buds crave salty and savory flavors, like cheese and crackers, bread and butter, potato chips, and nuts. But I do have a great fondness for dark chocolate, and besides it’s good for you too, so we’re all happy! Reading this book also gave me great happiness, speaking as it does to all five senses, so I chose to recreate the chocolate fondue that Vianne makes for Armande’s birthday feast. I served it with a meal of salmon farfalle with asparagus in a delicious cream sauce for my sister, one of the strongest women I am privileged to know.

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This is the method – a very simple one! – that worked for me. Minimal effort for maximum pleasure, as the beautiful Nigella Lawson would say! And how can that be a bad thing?

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INGREDIENTS
2 bars of dark Ghirardelli chocolate, 70% cocoa solids or more
1/2 cup of heavy cream
1/2 cup of amaretto
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon of almond extract
Cashew nuts, lightly salted

For dipping:
Strawberries
Grapes
Pineapple
Raspberries

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METHOD

Add the cream to a metal saucepan over very low heat. Watch it closely. When you see tiny bubbles starting to form around the edge, turn off the burner.

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Break up your chocolate into small chunks. Add them to the hot cream, whisk gently to mix, cover with a lid and leave for 15 minutes. Add the cashew nuts and stir again so they are mixed well into the chocolate. Cover and leave another 5 minutes.

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Remove the lid, stir again and you’ll see the alchemy of cooking. It has turned into a rich, beautiful, luscious, unctuous dark chocolate creamy sauce.

Add the amaretto and the vanilla, and the Cointreau if you’re using.

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Heat your fondue pot Sterno, and put the fondue pot over it.

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Pour your chocolate mixture into the fondue pot and stir it around again. Spear your goodies with the fondue forks, dip into the chocolate fondue, and apply to your face. Repeat as needed.

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