Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

This book is hilariously funny, riffing satirically on those chick-lit memoirs from the early 2000s in which a heroine ends up living abroad, usually Italy or France, renovates a house, learns to cook, falls in love, and finds herself, though not necessarily in that order.

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The book Under The Tuscan Sun is referenced often, but the other book I was reminded of was the highly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, that also detailed a woman’s “journey into self.” Gag. It was gushingly made into a film with the also highly annoying Julia Roberts and the absolutely gorgeous Javier Bardem, who is welcome to eat crackers in bed with me at any time.

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In this case, Cooking with Fernet-Branca turns the heroine into a hero, in the character of Gerald Samper, a British expatriate (and as an aside, why do we call Brits and Americans living in foreign countries “expatriates” and yet people who come here to the States or to Great Britain are referred to as “immigrants”? Food for thought……pardon the pun).

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Anyway, Gerald is a dreadful snob who ghostwrites biographies for celebrities, and loves to cook gourmand meals. The problem is, his concept of gourmet cooking is horrible. For example, he is given a bottle of Fernet-Branca by the loquacious Marta, his neighbor on the run from a Mafia crime lord. Fernet-Branca, if you’ve never had it, is a terribly bitter, herb-based liqueur much loved in Italy. Gerald proceeds to create a dessert of garlic and Fernet-Branca flavored ice cream, reveling in his own unique style of cooking.

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What makes this book so funny and satirical is that it takes all of the tropes of this chick-lit genre and holds them up so clearly to show the pure pretentiousness of all of these women who go to Italy and find themselves “under a Tuscan’s son.” (Not that there is anything wrong with finding yourself under a Tuscan’s son.) Gerald and Marta are each other’s intellectual and culinary equals, and the story is told from their dual viewpoints, giving us a glimpse of how ridiculous the other really is.

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Gerald loves to sing, horribly off-key, as he goes about renovating his Italian villa, and Marta, who is actually an Eastern European composer, begins using his dreadful songs in her own music, which is hysterical reading when Gerald also hears it and is horrified, not realizing the music and verse and voice are his own donkey-braying.

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I tried a small shot of Fernet-Branca when in Italy a few years ago, and still recall the shudder that went through me when I swallowed down the bitter, herbal hit of alcohol. It’s probably  something one could acquire a taste for, like Campari and Pernod. But even the bouquet of Fernet-Branca is vile, making one wonder exactly how it would taste in a garlic-flavored ice cream. I’m game to try if you are!

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Anyway, one of the more amusing dishes Gerald whips up are his mussels in chocolate sauce.

Mussels in chocolate. You flinch? But that’s only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.

I had absolutely no intention of making mussels cooked in chocolate. But there’s nothing wrong with making some lovely mussels in a garlic, parsley and white wine sauce, and then having a nice, decadent chocolate dessert. So that’s what I made.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous mussels recipe from the New York Times by David Tanis, one of the best cooks out there. The chocolate dessert was based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Chocohotopots from her terrific cookbook Feast, which are little baked chocolate molten cakes eaten hot and oozing chocolatey goodness straight out of the oven. The flavor tweaks in both the mussels and the chocolate pots are straight from me.

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INGREDIENTS
30 mussels
8 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 pinch cayenne
Handful fresh parsley
3/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup seafood or chicken broth
Lemon juice
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

METHOD
Buy mussels that are already cleaned, saving yourself much manual labor and irritation. Sort and rinse them well, going by that old rule of thumb to throw away any raw mussels that are open.

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Add the garlic, shallot and cayenne in some olive oil in a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven on your stovetop. Put a sprinkle of sea salt on top, and cook about 10 minutes, until the garlic and shallot are sizzling and have softened.

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Put the cleaned mussels into the pan and stir, to get all the flavors combined. Add the wine, clam juice, and broth, stir again, and put the lid on, so the mussels can steam. Stir after 2 minutes, then cover again and let cook another good 15 minutes.

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Squeeze in the lemon juice here.

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Make sure the mussels have all opened wide in the steam. If any remain closed, throw them away. Remove pan from heat, and then add the beaten egg to the half-and-half, mix together, and stir into the hot mussels in the pan. It makes for a nice, slightly creamy but not heavy, sauce.

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Decant the mussels into bowls, sprinkle with lots of parsley, and serve with nice, buttered baguette slices, which are useful for soaking up the fantastic mussel sauce.

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If you still have room in your tummy, eat the delectable chocolate pudding cake, which is simply 4 ounces of melted, good-quality dark chocolate and 1 stick of unsalted butter also melted, mixed together with 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon almond extract, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of regular flour, then poured into buttered ramekins and baked at 400F for 20 minutes, and eaten hot. Sooooooo good, and nary a a mussel to be found in the chocolate!

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I didn’t actually read this book when I was a kid, but since it’s ostensibly a kid’s book that weirded me out having read it as an adult, I think it fits snugly into my own Halloween canon this year. Coraline is just plain creepy. It hits a nerve for any kid, me included, who grew up wishing they had different parents. Well, that’s all of us, isn’t it?

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Coraline is a typical kid. She has quite an imagination and loves to wander off and find adventures. In fact, it’s her search for adventure in her new house that leads her to find the other side. Coraline is essentially ignored by her parents, which as an adult is somewhat understandable. As a kid, to simply want your parents to pay attention to you, to be “normal,” is an essential part of every kid’s experience growing up. Some parents are better than others. Coraline’s are not. They aren’t mean or abusive, nor do they neglect her in a bad way. They are simply wrapped up in their own lives, their own careers, their own interests and they seem to have forgotten that they have a kid who needs some feedback and attention.

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So when Coraline goes exploring and discovers the other house and the Other Mother and Other Father, who welcome her with such happiness and joy and wonderful home cooking and her own bedroom filled with magical toys and the promise that she can stay with them forever if she wants to, it’s no wonder she is tempted.

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What the underlying theme in this film is is bravery. Coraline is a brave kid, taking on a terrifying task of finding the souls of the three children whom the Other Mother has already taken, and possibly losing her own in the process.  The Other Mother is truly frightening. She has black button eyes and seems to know the deepest parts of Coraline’s mind and soul, anticipating Coraline’s moves when Coraline tries to find and release the souls of the other children trapped there. But it’s tempting for Coraline as well, because the Other Mother promises something Coraline doesn’t get from her parents – normalcy and attention. The fact that the Other Mother also does what any dream mother would do – cook a kid’s absolute favorite foods – is another mark in her favor since in her regular world, her real father cooks all this horrible gourmet food when he should realize that Coraline only wants microwaved food, like any regular kid. 🙂

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Coraline’s father stopped working and made them all dinner. Coraline was disgusted. “Daddy,” she said, “you’ve made a recipe again.” “It’s leek and potato stew, with a tarragon garnish and melted Gruyere cheese,” he admitted. Coraline sighed. Then she went to the freezer and got out some microwave chips and a microwave pizza.”

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Well, I don’t know about Coraline but to me, potato and leek soup with Gruyere and tarragon sound absolutely delicious, and perfect to make as the late summer weather changes to cool autumn temperatures. So that’s what I made. (Obligatory shot of my dog included, just because she’s cute.)

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons butter
3 leeks, well cleaned and trimmed
6 cloves garlic, peeled
3 leeks, trimmed and well washed
1 carton chicken broth
1/2 bottle white wine
1 tablespoon fresh chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon Better than Bouillon
3 tablespoons grated Gruyere cheese

METHOD
Melt the butter in a large pan. Slice the leeks into rounds and add to the butter. Let saute for about 5 minutes.

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Finely mince the garlic and the tarragon and add both to the leeks in the pan. Let them cook together for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a dash or two of sea salt.

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Cube the peeled potatoes and add to the leeks, tarragon, and garlic. Stir around to cover with the butter.

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Add the dried thyme, pour over the chicken broth and the white wine, cover and let simmer for 45 minutes, until the potatoes have completely softened.

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Bust out the fabulous stick blender and blend until everything is smooth and velvety and unctuous.

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Add in the grated Gruyere cheese and stir to mix and melt. Let simmer a few more minutes, tasting for seasoning.

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Decant into soup bowls and garnish with some more fresh tarragon. The licorice hint from the tarragon is a perfect contrast to the starchy potatoes and rich cheese. So delicious! I think it might even convince Coraline to try it!

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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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Don’t Look Now by Daphne DuMaurier

Having had a long-time love affair with the books of Daphne DuMaurier, I was especially pleased to find a compilation of stories that included Don’t Look Now. The story, set in Venice, which is my favorite city on earth, combines creepy supernatural elements with the gorgeous backdrop of La Serennissima.

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The basic story is a couple, John and Laura, whose daughter has recently died, and who are visiting Venice in the hopes of coming to terms with her death. They encounter two odd old ladies – sisters and twins – who claim to be psychic and in contact with the dead daughter, and begin to have the strangest interactions with them. Cue the haunted house music here. John starts seeing a ghostly little girl in a red coat running around canals and over bridges, and at the same time, hears of gruesome murders happening in Venice.  His dead daughter died wearing a red coat so he thinks he is seeing her ghost.

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If you’ve ever visited Venice and seen it in both rainy weather and with the sun shining, you’ll understand that it seems two different cities. Venice in sunshine is beautiful, golds and pinks with the water reflections bouncing off the walls of the buildings that line the canals, and even the tourist chatter doesn’t detract from its charm. Seen with rain as the backdrop, it is a dark, haunted city with dead end corners, frighteningly loud echoes of footsteps in portegos, foggy lights reflected from the ornate lampposts around Piazza San Marco, and a pervasive sense of menace. I can tell you that if I was in Venice on a rainy, foggy day and saw some little girl running around like a haunt, hell no would I follow her.

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But I don’t like kids anyway. Anyhoo, Campari and soda, and scampi, are mentioned in a pivotal scene when John and Laura again meet the old ladies in a restaurant, so you get two recipes for the price of one in this week’s post! Lucky you!

“All right, thought John savagely, then I will get sloshed, and he proceeded to down his Campari and soda and order another, while he pointed out something quite unintelligible on the menu as his own choice, but remembered scampi for Laura. ‘And a bottle of soave,’ he added, ‘with ice.’ “

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I love to make scampi, and usually throw in a handful of sliced grape tomatoes in mine, for color and because tomato and shrimp have such a natural affinity for each other. Having recently bought some fresh green tomatillos at my local farmer’s market, I decided to make a variation of scampi with tomatillos. I know tomatillos are not traditionally Venetian, being much more used in Latin American recipes, but just think of it as my contribution to multiculturalism.

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INGREDIENTS

For the tomatillo scampi (adapted from this version at Simply Recipes, one of the BEST food blog sites out there)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 red onion, finely diced
4-5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1 jalapeno pepper, deseeded and finely chopped
Sea salt
6-7 tomatillos, husked, seeded and quartered
1 lb. raw shrimp, shells on
1/2 cup of white wine
1/2 cup of clam juice or seafood stock
1 tomato bouillon cube
3 tablespoons lemon juice
Optional: 1 cup crumbled feta cheese or Cotija cheese. (I am told by my Italian friends that cheese is not eaten with shellfish or seafood, and were I cooking in Venice, I would leave it out, but half the fun is experimenting with flavors, so I did. Send the hate mail later.)

METHOD
Saute the onion, garlic and minced jalapeno pepper in the olive oil and butter, for about 10 minutes. Add a sprinkle of sea salt. Add the tomatillos, give a good stir to mix, and cook over medium-low heat for another 10-15 minutes.

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Add the wine and the clam juice, let simmer and reduce it to about half the original liquid volume.

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Now add the tomato bouillon. Stir to mix and cook another 5 minutes. Toss in the raw shrimp and lemon juice, and cook over low heat, until the shrimp turn pink and look plump and luscious. If you so choose, add your cheese here and allow the cooking heat to melt it slightly before serving, but if you do add cheese, make sure your liquid has reduced significantly, or this will be runny. If you omit the cheese, serve over rice or linguine pasta.

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Having tried Campari to see if it’s really as bitter as famously claimed, guess what! It’s bitter! But the color reminded me of Italian spritzers I drank with my friend Kate in Venice at a cafe on the Fondamenta Nuova, overlooking the lagoon and San Michele, so I tinkered around with the Campari, some gin, some lemon and a few other things, and came up with what I will call a Vanessa cocktail.

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For the Vanessa cocktail – makes two generous drinks so feel free to adjust ratios as needed
1 part Campari
1 part gin
1 part limoncello or fresh lemon juice
1 part Cointreau
1 part cranberry juice
Ice
Lemon rind twists for garnish

Add all the ingredients, except the lemon rind, into a shaker, with ice. Shake well to mix. Pour into chilled glasses and garnish with the lemon rind twists. Admire the color…….kind of like the red coat on the ghostly kid running around Venice, wouldn’t you say? Knock it back with a smile or a shudder, but don’t look now.

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The Investigative Paranormal Society Cookbook by Charles French

French has a wonderful blog – here’s the link – that I follow and enjoy so very much, in addition to his first book Maledicus: The Investigative Paranormal Society, which I blogged about last year. The book is the story of three older gentlemen who form a paranormal group and go ghost-hunting, only to find that there are spirits and specters more terrifying in life and death than they ever would have thought possible. They do battle with the titular character Maledicus, a wonderfully evil and thoroughly nasty and despicable spirit who was just as bad when he was alive, and it is overall a wonderful, fast-paced and adventuresome book.

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Being a book and food aficionado and having combined these two in my own blog, I was very pleased with the number of cooking and foodie references in Maledicus, and was happy to see that Charles French had decided to pay homage to his characters and their love of food and create this cookbook filled with delicious recipes from the characters in the book. What I like about French’s characters is that they are all so different and yet have the same love of cooking, though they all create different types of cuisine based on their own lifestyles, backgrounds, and abilities. The main character, Roosevelt Franklin, is a widower whose wife Sarah passed away. She was quite the gourmet cook, often making him lots of delectable meals that he would never attempt after her death, missing her so terribly as he does. It’s odd, because although Sarah is dead, she is as much a character in death as anyone else in the book.

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This marvelous little cookbook has such culinary delights as Carrot Cake, Grape and Walnut Salad with Blue Cheese Dressing, Chicken Parmigiana, Quiche Lorraine, and other yumminess, all made by the various other characters in the book. Two main characters and the other two original members of the Investigative Paranormal Society, Jeremy Roche and Sam Sadlowski, are also quite good cooks in their own ways, though rather different in their methods. Jeremy is much more refined than Sam, who’s a retired police officer and whose tastes run to the Hungarian classics of his own family background. Two of the recipes I most wanted to try in this book are both Sam’s.

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I limit my carbohydrate intake most of the time, so I decided to make Sam’s Hungarian Green Beans and Chicken Paprikash, omitting the noodles or rice that traditionally go with this type of dish, and the green beans provided a very nice contrast. The only things I did differently were to add some lemon and more salt to the green beans and cut down the sour cream and heavy cream somewhat to make it lighter; and to use red bell peppers and smoked paprika for the Chicken Paprikash, simply because I prefer their flavors instead.

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INGREDIENTS
For the Chicken Paprikash:
2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, preferably organic
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 red bell peppers, cored, seeded and chopped into long slices
2 onions, peeled and diced
1 pound mushrooms, sliced
2 14-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 cups sour cream

For the Hungarian Green Beans:
2 lbs fresh green beans, trimmed
1 large onion, sliced
3 tablespoons sour cream
1 tablespoon heavy cream
1/4 cup paprika
1 generous tablespoon lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Poach the chicken for 10 minutes, then pat dry, before shredding.

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In a dutch oven, heat the olive oil and add half the smoked paprika so that the oil looks red, and saute the vegetables for 10 minutes.

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Add the canned tomatoes, a dash of salt and pepper, and stir again to mix. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed with more paprika, salt or pepper.

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Add the chicken chunks, cover and simmer on low for up to 2 hours.

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After 1 and 1/2 hours, add in the sour cream and taste again. Let heat, but don’t let the cream curdle.

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During the last half-hour of the Paprikash’s cooking, par-boil the green beans for two minutes in salted water, then immediately blanch in ice water. You want them still a bit crunchy and with their green color intact.

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Saute the onion in a bit of oil and some salt, until softened and slightly starting to caramelize. Just keep an eye on it and keep stirring.

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Mix together the heavy cream, the sour cream and the paprika, and add in the cooled green beans.

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Add in the sauteed onions and the paprika, stir to mix well, and taste. Add the lemon juice here as well as the salt and pepper, and taste. Adjust seasoning as needed. NOTE: this is rather bland so I would recommend more salt and more lemon, for certain.

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Serve together, and enjoy with a nice, full-bodied red wine like Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, and toast the culinary genius of Sam Sadlowski! And a most sincere thank-you to Charles F. French, who created these wonderful characters and recipes. Check out his blog and give the man some love and kudos! And a huge thank you to Charles French for writing this wonderful cookbook and giving me much more cooking inspiration! If you get a chance, head over to his awesome blog and show him and his writing some extra love and attention!

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Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

No doubt many people saw the mediocre movie made from this book  Corelli’s Mandolin,  beautifully filmed but as usual, not nearly as compelling as the book, which is written in lively, colorful prose from the viewpoint of several unique characters. These unique individuals include the main female character Pellagia, a traditionally raised Greek daughter who dutifully cooks for her father and becomes engaged to the local stud but then flips convention on its head with her later choices; Dr. Iannis, her father, who has his head in the clouds, who cures wild animals as well as human beings and whose inner monologues kept me vastly amused and entertained; and of course, the titular character himself, Captain Antonio Corelli. It was a wonderful read, but also very depressing and sad…..kind of like life itself.  Set on the gorgeous island of Cephallonia during World War II, the heartbreak of war is brought vividly to life in this place that has remained timeless until now. I suppose it goes to show that the horror of war leaves no place and no one untouched.

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Being set in Greece, of course the food depictions are luscious, with descriptions of wonderful octopus, mezedakia, which are little finger-type foods served like appetizers, dolmades, spinach pies in miniature, and my favorite, the passage below, set during the feast of the local saint, St. Gerasimos.

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“Outside, the pilgrims unloaded animals laden with feta, melons, cooked fowl, and Cephallonian meat pie, shared it with their neighbours and composed epigrammatic couplets at each other’s expense.”

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How can you not love a book that uses the word “epigrammatic” in the same sentence as such a delectable food passage? Anyhoo, kreatopita is the traditional meat pie eaten on Cephallonia, and can contain ground beef, feta cheese, onions, oregano and assorted other ingredients such as potatoes, rice, garlic, or tomatoes. The idea, I gather, is that each Greek cook has their own individual version of this recipe, and that is what true home cooking is all about. Having the skills to cook something and add tweaks or twists that make it truly your own, and which is part of the joy of this blog for me. It’s the ultimate in creativity, and I did it again here with the Cephallonian meat pie, using a base recipe from the marvelous blog site Lemon and Olives, with some added tweaks of my own.

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INGREDIENTS
16-20 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed and covered with damp towel
1 cup melted butter
1 lb. good-quality ground beef, preferably organic
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely minced
Fresh oregano, fresh mint and fresh dill – use dried if fresh are not available but use less
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup of good, drinkable red wine.
1 cup of crumbled feta cheese
Squeeze of lemon juice
1 1/2 cups of frozen green peas

METHOD
Preheat the oven to 365F. In a skillet under a medium burner, add the olive oil and saute the onion and garlic for about 10 minutes, adding a bit of sea salt for flavoring and to keep the onion from burning. Add the ground beef to the onions and garlic in the pan, and brown for about 10-15 minutes, stirring to break up the meat.

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Chop the equivalent of a 1/2 cup each of the fresh oregano, mint and dill. In another bowl, crumble up the feta cheese with your hands, and add the fresh herbs to this mixture. Fresh herbs really allow the flavors to come through, so if you use dried, use 1/2 tablespoon of each. Stir to mix and let the flavors mix together while you attend to the still-cooking meat.

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Add the tomato paste and the wine and the beef and stir again. Lower the heat  to medium low and let the red wine reduce, stirring occasionally. Add in the peas and stir again, so that the heat of the skillet will help them defrost. The scent of the meat, the wine, the peas and the herbs will rise up and hit your nasal passages like a dream. Delicious!

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You want the liquid reduced to nothing, so as not to make the phyllo dough soggy, so once the liquid is all gone, remove the meat mixture from the heat and let it cool for about 10-15 minutes. Once cooled, add the crumbled feta and herb mixture, mix well, and leave while you prepare the phyllo dough pie base.

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In whatever type of baking pan you have – I used a buttered disposable baking pan – lay one sheet of phyllo dough and brush it with melted butter. Lay another sheet of phyllo and brush with butter again. Continue in this vein until you have 8-10 sheets of phyllo layered on top of each other, each layer covered with butter. You need to do this fairly quickly, as the phyllo dough dries out easily. If you cover the dough sheets with a damp towel, this should help, but don’t take too long at this stage.

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On this buttery surface, add your meat-feta-pea mixture and spread everything out so that it evenly covers the dough. Add another sheet of phyllo dough on top of the meat mixture, brush with butter, and repeat until you have a topping of 8 more phyllo sheets to cover the meat.

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Poke a few holes in the top of the dough and pop that bad boy into the oven to bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. You’ll be able to smell everything baking and your mouth will probably water so much that you’ll need a swig of wine to help. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly and eat with joy in your heart! Opa!

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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 Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis

In honor of Easter Sunday, I decided to reacquaint myself with The Last Temptation of Christ, a book that has a very soft spot in my heart. This is the book and movie for which I was kicked out of Catholic school back in 9th grade. I didn’t get kicked out because I was a troublemaker or kissing boys behind the school or anything sinful that would warrant getting the boot from good old St. Michael’s High School. I got kicked out for asking questions. Let me explain.

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The movie came out in the mid-1980s and caused a huge ruckus in the Catholic Church, the reason being is that the movie – and the book it was based on – showed a scene of Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene. I will give you the context of that scene later in this blog, but oh the horror! My mom fell in with the ridiculous mob mentality of many parents back then and refused to allow my sister and I to see it. So of course, what does forbidding something from someone make them want to do? It makes them want to have it, of course.

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Anyway, I spent the weekend with my Dad during all this brouhaha, and we went to rent movies at Blockbuster one evening. I saw a copy of The Last Temptation of Christ – VHS old school, no less! – and asked if I could rent it. Being that he was a teacher, he was never big on restricting knowledge and so he said yes, I could rent it but I had to watch it with him and he’d answer any questions I might have. Oh goody goody gumdrops, was my reaction. So I watched it and was enthralled with the vision of the human Jesus that I had never previously experienced. (Also, how freakin’ cool is it that David Bowie played Pontius Pilate!!!!)

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I was raised Catholic, obviously, and the Jesus I learned about always knew he was the Son of God and what his ultimate fate would be, or at least, this was how it was presented to me. So to watch this movie, which showed Jesus as a man with doubts and fears and desires who was having visions of God and seeing and hearing things and thinking that he was going insane was a HUGE revelation to me. It’s hard to even put into words just how much of a revelation it was……literally life-changing because from that point on, my entire concept of Jesus and God and religion shifted and I wanted to know more.

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So Monday rolled around and I happily trotted back to St. Mike’s with the scales having fallen from my eyes, as it were, and ended my school day with religion class. I sat down in Brother Ben’s class, we did the lesson and I naively raised my hand to ask a question that had occurred to me after having watched the film. My dad, bless his movie censor heart, had fallen asleep during the film so I couldn’t ask him. Anyway, I can’t remember the exact question, but it infuriated Brother Ben, who was this large, red-faced, beefy Irishman of a priest and his face turned the color of a tomato when I asked my question. He said, “Why are you asking that kind of question?!” in a very peeved tone of voice. I responded “Well, I saw this movie this weekend and it made me start thinking about this so I wanted to ask you.” He responded quite angrily, “What movie did you see?” and dummy me, not seeing the warning signs at the time, said innocently, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Oh my Lord – pardon the pun – it was like throwing a match into a keg of gasoline. He exploded, shouting at me and questioning why my parents would allow me to watch such filth and that I had no business asking those kinds of questions, etc. etc. A few weeks later, at the end of the school year, my mom got a letter from the principal of St. Mike’s suggesting I would be happier in a “non-parochial environment.” I still laugh about it now.

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Anyway, the book tells the story of Jesus and his path to realizing he is the Son of God, his ministry, his temptations, and his crucifixion. But then from there, while he is slowly and agonizingly dying on the cross, it veers into a lengthy, intense vision of what his life would have been like if he had been different, lived as a a normal man. In this vision, he lives, marries the woman he loves Mary Magdalene (hence his vision of them making love and the furor that created in the Church because what a horrible thing for Jesus to imagine his destiny differently), has children and lives an otherwise unremarkable, normal, happy life. In  other words, the sex scene is all in his mind as part of his vision of giving up being the Son of God. If you were dying slowly and horrifically, wouldn’t you want to escape mentally and imagine you were somewhere else with someone you loved? I would, JC! You’re not alone!

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The son of Mary felt calmed. He sat down on the root of the ancient olive tree and began to eat. How tasty this bread was, how refreshing the water, how sweet the two olives which the old lady gave him to accompany his bread. They had slender pits and were as fat and fleshy as apples! He chewed tranquilly and ate, feeling that his body and soul had joined and become one now, that they were receiving the bread, olives and water with one mouth, rejoicing, the both of them, and being nourished.

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Isn’t that the most beautiful description of eating? I just love it. It inspired me to make olive bread, because bread is the most Biblical of foods and olives were common in Jesus’ time, and then of course, you have the whole Mount of Olives reference and so on. This is the method I used, based on a long-remembered recipe from a Mediterranean cookbook I used to have. Best part? No kneading involved.

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INGREDIENTS
2 cups lukewarm water
1 package (2 and 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
4 teaspoons sea salt
4 cups all purpose flour
1 cup mixed green and black olives, chopped
1 tablespoon garlic powder
Olive oil
1 teaspoon each of dried parsley, dried basil and dried thyme

METHOD
In a large mixing bowl, combine water and yeast.

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Add one cup of flour and the sea salt, and stir until well mixed.

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Add the sliced olives and the garlic powder. Mix again.

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One cup at a time, stir in the remaining flour. You’ll notice the mixture getting thicker and shaggier with each cupful. This is normal.

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Cover with plastic wrap and a tea towel and set somewhere warm to rise for an hour.

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Add a tablespoon of olive oil in an 8-inch cast iron skillet and coat the bottom and sides of the skillet, then transfer the now-risen and very sticky dough to the oiled skillet. You may need to shape it a bit to make it the round size you want.

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Cover with the tea towel and let it proof another half-hour, and heat the oven to 425F.

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Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil on top of the dough, sprinkle with the dried herbs and maybe a bit of sea salt.

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Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top crust is nice and brown. Isn’t it beautiful? I was so proud!

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Remove from the oven and let cool a few minutes before removing the bread from the skillet. Let cool a bit more, and serve with either butter or very good extra-virgin olive oil and a glass of red wine. Because it’s Easter. You gotta have the bread and wine to be saved.

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Sexy Sunday! Little Birds by Anaïs Nin

It’s Sunday near the end of Lent, so what else could I have possibly read except some hard-core erotica by one of the world’s foremost feminist writers? Yes, it’s Sexy Sunday again, and Nicole of The Bookworm Drinketh has posted her own take on this book – and her alcoholic escape – over at her blog, so once you’re done reading mine, take a gander at what naughtiness she’s up to today. Here’s the link.

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So. Anaïs Nin. If you’ve heard of Henry Miller or his book Tropic of Cancer, you’ll know about Anaïs Nin. Or if you’ve read her without any prior knowledge of her hot and heavy sexual affair with Miller, you’ll understand what I mean when I say “damn, Anaïs!” Little Birds is her collection of erotic short stories, and what’s fascinating about them is that she explores each facet of sexuality in such a nonchalant, detached way. Some of the stories are a bit subversive, touching as they do on teen sexuality (something we aren’t supposed to acknowledge), and the simple fact that women as as much sexual beings as men are.

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Nin writes very much writes from a sexually liberated viewpoint, and her erotica is very hard-edged and not written with what you might traditionally expect from a female writer in this genre, which is why these stories are so unique and, in my opinion, beyond the usual erotica. I’d imagine most people would expect more flowery, romantic prose, but Nin writes very straightforwardly. This is erotica versus plain ol’ pornography, and I don’t know about you, but I much prefer something erotic and that engages and arouses the mind as much as the body.

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My favorite line has to be this one. “He was whispering over and over again the same phrase, “You have the body of an angel. It is impossible that such a body should have a sex. You have the body of an angel.” The anger swept over Fay like a fever, an anger at his moving his penis away from her hand. She sat up, her hair wild about her shoulders, and said, “I am not an angel, Albert. I am a woman. I want you to love me as a woman.” I’d think any normal, red-blooded woman who enjoys sexuality feels this way. I know I do. I don’t want to be treated like a Victorian maiden made of glass…….I want my lover to understand that I am his equal in terms of desire, fantasies, wants, needs and sheer lust.

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The titular story details a perverted older man who lures the young women from the school across from his apartment up by putting little birds in cages on his balcony, then exposing himself to them when they come to see the birds. Pig. Perhaps I should have made a roast pig dish, but, well, what else was I going to make with that title? Pizza? Yes, I made some little birds and goddamn it, I’m not sorry. OK, I’m maybe a little bit sorry, because quails are so darn cute but I got over being sorry pretty quickly as I crunched into those tasty little baked birdies. Hey, there’s a reason we’re on top of the food chain!

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INGREDIENTS
6 quail, 5 ounces apiece
3 strips bacon, each cut in half

Salt and pepper to taste
1 head of garlic, roasted
Handful of fresh rosemary sprigs. minced
Handful of fresh thyme sprigs, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
12 cippolline onions, peeled and halved
2-3 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 pound red grapes

METHOD
Rinse the quail and pat dry, and season with salt and pepper both inside and outside, and put a half-strip of raw bacon inside each quail cavity.

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Add some of the fresh rosemary and thyme into the bird’s cavity, then squeeze out the roasted garlic cloves and push one inside each bird cavity as well. Drizzle with olive oil and let marinate a good 1-2 hours.

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Heat oven to 450F. In a cast-iron pan, toss the halved cippolline onions with salt, pepper, olive oil and the balsamic vinegar. Mix well.

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Bake the onions for 20 minutes, until they caramelize slightly and soften and brown a bit. Set aside.

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Spread the remaining rosemary and thyme sprigs out onto a baking sheet, lay the marinated quail breast-side down, and sprinkle over some of the minced fresh herbs. Roast for 25 minutes, until they have browned nicely.

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Turn the oven up to 550F. Remove the quails, turn them over breast side up, and and scatter around the roasted onions and the red grapes.

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Roast another 10-15 minutes, until the skin crisps. Remove, let rest a good 10-15 minutes, and serve with steamed asparagus. The grapes create a nice, not overly sweet sauce that melds with the balsamic vinegar and olive oil, and is so deliciously sensuous to eat.

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A Roman Tale by Carroll Baker

I don’t screw up in the kitchen much, so when I do, it’s usually in a spectacular fashion. Today was no different, and I think it must be the universe’s way of getting back at me for daring to read some total fluffy, smutty trash. But it’s set in Italy, I told myself as I opened the book and fell into the 1960’s world of Rome. Well, sometimes a girl just needs some smut in her life, and A Roman Tale delivers. But oh the kitchen fuck-up!

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Anyway, this book combines lots of sex, the film industry, Italy, and some not-so-cleverly hidden allusions to famous actors and actresses into a – heh heh heh – fantastical roman á clef. Get it? A Roman Tale? Roman á clef? Oh, never mind me and my bad pun. Another punishment for screwing up so royally in the kitchen.

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The main character, Madeline Mandell, who is supposed to be based both on the author and actress Carroll Baker and of course, the inimitable Marilyn Monroe, moves to 1960’s Rome – the “La Dolce Vita” years – after her Hollywood career tanks. She’s known as “Venus” due to her sexy image, though the reality is that she’s essentially frigid due to her jerk of a former husband. She hopes the move to Rome will both reignite her movie career and allow her all the sexual experimentation she missed out in in the United States.

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She is befriended by three international actresses – Astrid, Helga, and Cleo (who are supposedly based on Ursula Andress, Anita Ekberg, and Sophia Loren), and starts an Italian film. She is introduced to the debonair Umberto Cassini, who of course she becomes infatuated with and he with her. The parallels to Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita (and one of my top 5 favorite films of all time) are unmissable.

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But of course, nothing ever goes smoothly and the fly in the ointment is the British actress Serena Blair (likely based on Audrey Hepburn), who is pulling some machinations behind the scenes to get all four coveted roles in an upcoming major film, Boccaccio Volgare, that Madeline, Astrid, Helga, and Cleo are vying for.

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It’s pure fun and escapism, this book, adorned with descriptions of beautiful gowns, gorgeous mansions, significant amounts of wild sexual escapades including a group orgy, girl-on-girl, masturbation, a little back-door action and of course, the final lovemaking scene between Umberto and Madeline that (SPOILER ALERT!) literally ends with them living happily ever after when they are married. Other storylines are interspered as well, involving the many and varied sexual escapades of nearly every single character in the book, and there is not a damn thing wrong with that. I’d say it’s good clean fun, but it’s actually really trashy, not particularly well-written, extremely smutty, fun.

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Hey, a little smut never hurt anyone!

Rome, of course, is the star of the book and all the stunning landscapes of The Eternal City are described in mouthwatering detail…….La Bocca della Veritá, Piazza Navona, The Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, Fontana di Trevi, Palatine Hill, and so much more. I think I stuck with the book mainly for the location descriptions, though the sex and the food helped whet my appetite. For cooking, of course! 🙂

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A subplot involves a young Italian starlet named Pina who seduces most of the men and infuriates most of the women at her extravagant wedding. Umberto squires Madeline and they share in the mammoth five-course feast, featuring several pastas and many other delectable-sounding dishes.

After the spaghetti alla primavera, there was tagliatelli with cream and peas, penne with cheese and asparagus, ravioli with cognac and truffles, and then the antipasto assortment. The main course was roast pork with kidneys, sausages, roast potatoes, and spinach puffs.

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Having decided this was a great excuse to play with the pasta maker attachment for the Kitchen Aid and make fresh homemade pasta from scratch, I decided to recreate the penne with asparagus mentioned as part of the wedding feast. It did not come out well, as I will detail below. And for the record, do not ever let anyone tell you making homemade pasta is easy, at least the first time around. It isn’t. Wear an apron because if not, you’ll have flour all over you. ALL OVER YOU. Also, it’s way messy. Like, use every pan and stirring implement and utensil in the kitchen messy. (This is the aftermath of my kitchen post-making fresh pasta.)

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INGREDIENTS

For the pasta:
3 eggs, cold
2 and 1/2 cups 00 flour
1 teaspoon sea salt

For the sauce:
1 lb. fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into roughly 1/2″ chunks
1 shallot
4 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
6-7 strips pancetta
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup of white wine
1/2 cup water from the boiled pasta
Parmesan cheese to taste

METHOD
Measure out the flour onto a flat surface, and make a well in it.

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Crack in the eggs, and mix them into the flour using a fork.

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Once the eggs are incorporated, start kneading by hand. You may have to add some warm water if your dough mixture is too dry and crumbly.

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Roll and knead the dough until it coheres, then form it into a ball. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for up to an hour, if not longer.

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Put on a large pot of water to boil and add some sea salt. While the water is heating, chop the shallot and garlic and add to a pan with the olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.

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Finely chop up the pancetta and add to the shallot and garlic, and fry until it starts to get crispy.

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Pour in the heavy cream and the wine, and bring to a very low simmer, then toss in the asparagus chunks.

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Cover and let cook slowly over low heat, and flour a flat surface. Unwrap the pasta dough and start rolling it out into a round disc shape.

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When it’s about a half-inch thick in diameter, cut into pieces, roll into small balls, and start feeding them into your pasta machine.

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I attempted penne. You can see that, in this case, concept far outweighed execution……other than my desire to execute myself over the travesty that was my homemade pasta. But at least my cute dog is in the pic, to distract you.

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Put the freshly cut pasta into the boiling water on the stove and cook. In theory, the pasta should cook within a couple of minutes. In reality, my pasta cooked and cooked and cooked and softened after maybe 10 hard minutes of boiling. I still can’t figure out what I did wrong, but luckily I’m a seasoned kitchen hack so I had a packet of ready-made fettuccine on hand.

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Add the fettuccine to the boiling water, and cook for 8 minutes until al dente. Add about half a cup of the pasta water to the asparagus sauce and let simmer a few more minutes.

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Grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

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Plate and serve. So although my penne was somewhat of a disaster, it actually tasted quite nice. The texture was quite thick, so I think I probably should have rolled it out thinner or perhaps refrigerated it longer. Regardless, I served my sad penne with the perfectly cooked fettuccine, swirled in the pan of creamy asparagus and pancetta.

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It might have looked somewhat frightful, but it actually was delicious. I just closed my eyes and pretended I was in Rome having smutty sex rather than eating what my friend Janet called “pasta and dumplings.” (sigh)

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