My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

No, I didn’t read this book out of any type of name ego toward the title……ok, maybe I did a little. But that quickly went by the wayside as I traveled deeper into this very hard read. This book takes on the concept of what it truly means to be a victim in our society. It takes the truth and plays with it in such a way that you don’t know who to blame, who to be angry toward, feminism, victim-blaming and victim-shaming, the sexual boundary between youth and adulthood, and what our minds do to protect ourselves and justify our actions, our thoughts and our beliefs.

The story is told in two timeframes: starting in 2000 when 14-year old Vanessa Wye starts attending a private high school and begins a tumultuous affair with her 40-something English professor Jacob Strane, and in 2017 when Vanessa is an adult, living a mediocre life of one-night stands, failed relationships, thrashed apartments and a dead-end job…….and still involved (if only emotionally) with Jacob Strane. It’s a clever device because it contrasts between the youth and hope and destructiveness of Vanessa’s teen year as she is gradually groomed into becoming Strane’s lover; and her cynicism, bitterness and inability to see herself as having been a victim as an adult. She can’t seem to get her life together in any real way, stuck as she is in her job and same ways of doing things and continuing with the dysfunctional and simultaneous love and repulsion she feels toward Strane.

It’s a sign of just how much he was able to manipulate her mentally and emotionally that even as an adult, Vanessa cannot separate her own desire to live her own life and not be considered a victim with her inability to separate herself from Strane. She is physically repulsed by him as an adult but cannot break that bond with him and still tells him she will remain loyal to him even as more and more students come out of the woodwork to accuse him of sexual assault, sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior.

Nabokov’s disturbing book Lolita is invoked throughout, and there are shades of The Police’s rock hit “Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” as well. It’s compelling and repulsive at the same time. Repulsion is a good word here, because it reminds me of that famous quote by Freud: “on the other side of desire lies repulsion.” For me, that quote perfectly sums up Vanessa’s feelings toward Strane. As a teenager, she loves his attention toward her, loves his passionate personality, loves the portrait of herself that he sees in his mind when he looks at her, and is physically repelled by the actual act of sexual intercourse with him. That pattern continues throughout their increasingly twisted relationship.

We all know that any 40-year old who pursues any type of relationship with a 14-year old is twisted. We all know that any teacher who pursues any type of sexual relationship with a student is messed up. Why this book is so hard to put down and so hard to continue reading is because there are times when you go back and forth about who pursued who and I think you’re meant to, to really get your head into that space of seeing exactly how subtle the manipulation is by Strane, but also recognizing that Vanessa genuinely loves his attention, loves him. I remember clearly being a senior in high school and becoming aware of my own feminine power and my own physicality. It’s hard, because a young woman just coming into her awareness of her own sexuality is a beautiful thing, and can be very empowering and also very heady. I think that’s why Vanessa has such a hard time allowing herself to truly believe she’s been a victim of Strane’s manipulation – it’s tied up in her own awakening and awareness of her own sexuality and the power that comes with that.

This is probably one of the heaviest reads I’ve come across in years. I couldn’t put it down but I had to at times because the intensity of Vanessa’s darkness, her switching back and forth between realizing how she’d been manipulated and abused and making excuses for Strane and blaming herself for what ultimately happens and maintaining this weird loyalty toward him……….this is the ultimate example of Stockholm Syndrome and you realize just how powerful his hold is over her. She starts gradually excavating her own feelings and realizations as the book goes on, and the ending implies she is at least starting to acknowledge how deeply and horribly damaged she was by Strane and what a bastard he truly is, and finding her own strength. But it comes at a cost, as does everything in life that makes us stronger.

I didn’t go into this book intending it as a food in books post, simply because my head wasn’t in that space due to the subject matter. But I did come across a few interesting food references, and this one in particular stood out to me since it was something I’d never heard of or made before. It’s when Strane takes Vanessa out to dinner during her senior year in college and he is trying to push her into going to graduate school……and with the expectation that after dinner, she’ll go back to his hotel with him. He takes her to some fancy-schmancy restaurant where she peruses the menu before getting drunk….so drunk that she can’t have sex with him…….her subconscious method of keeping the physical aspect of their relationship at bay. Yes, it’s creepy.

The first week in November, Strane makes a reservation at an expensive restaurant down the coast and books us a hotel room. He tells me to dress up, so I wear a black dress with thin straps, the only nice thing I own. The restaurant is Michelin-starred, Strane says, and I pretend to know what it means……..The menu is all stuff like scallops with asparagus flan, tenderloin crusted with foie gras. Nothing has a price.

So, asparagus flan it was.

INGREDIENTS
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
A dozen asparagus spears, trimmed and halved
1 and 1/2 cups crumbled blue cheese
1/3 cup of sour cream (or creme fraiche if you can find it)
3 large eggs, beaten
Zest of 1 lemon

METHOD
Heat the oven to 325F and butter four oven-safe ramekins. Put on your kettle at the same time so you’ll have boiling water.

Boil the asparagus in salted water for 1-3 minutes until bright green, then drain and plunge into ice water. Drain and pat dry.

Over medium heat, whisk together the blue cheese and the sour cream until smooth and creamily melted together.

Add the eggs gradually and mix together, then divide among the four ramekins, and top with the asparagus.

Grate the lemon zest over each filled ramekin.

Place the ramekins in a large glass baking pan and carefully pour in the boiling water, so that it comes to halfway up the sides of the ramekins. This is what you’d call a water bath or a bain-marie and it helps create a smooth and creamy baked texture.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, and let cool for up to 15 minutes, before serving with skillet-seared scallops in a lemon-wine-caper-butter sauce. It’s a delicious meal, rich and decadent and satisfying without being overwhelming.

The Lost Book of the Grail by Charlie Lovett

I admit to having been a Grail fan since I read Le Morte d’Arthur many years ago. The romance of the Arthurian legend combined with the mysticism of the Cup of Christ is the ultimate story, isn’t it? King Arthur courting Guinevere, Sir Lancelot falling in love with Guinevere and his relationship with Elaine, Arthur’s incestuous liaison with Morgan le Fay and the birth of their son Mordred, Sir Galahad going off in search of the Grail itself……..this is the stuff of fairy tales combined with some arguable historical figures so of course it’s compelling reading!

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When I read The Mists of Avalon, it was eye-opening because it presented the tale from a completely different perspective that embodied female power and juxtaposed Christianity taking over the pagan religions of ancient Britain in a fascinating way. In addition to Monty Python, though, the film that always fascinated me with regard to the Grail was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.which remains a favorite to this day, particularly the scene toward the end when Indy finds the knight in the chamber surrounded by cups and chalices and glasses and vessels. That scene perfectly embodied the mysterious and ethereal nature of the Grail……..especially when it is pointed out that the cup of Christ would not be made of gold. Well, duh, but I had never thought about it that way before, having been entrenched in the rituals of the Catholic church and the typical Communion wine goblet.

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This book, The Lost Book of the Grail, adds a nice twist to the traditional tropes of Grail lore. The protagonist, Arthur Prescott, is endearingly old fashioned and nerdy, teaching at the University of Barchester Cathedral, a nice little meta-nod to the fictional town of Barchester as satirically created by the late Anthony Trollope. He loves books and hates the modern world, having been raised on the mythology of King Arthur and the Grail. His own grandfather has planted the seed that the Holy Grail itself may be hidden somewhere in Barchester and that colors his perception of his own life there.

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A young lady named Bethany comes to Barchester, intent on digitizing the ancient books in the Barchester Cathedral library and as much as Arthur is drawn to her, he shies away from her modern outlook on books and literature. But she is also an amateur Grail sleuth, and before long, they are on the trail of the legendary Cup of Christ and the origins of the ancient St. Ewolda, whose story interweaves with the Grail in a really wonderful and unusual way. And of course, one  thing Arthur loves is walking with the female Dean of the Cathedral, Gwyn Bowen, and her two dogs, each morning and debating various issues tying in with life, literature and often, food.  Gwyn needles him about his dislike for a colleague, whom Arthur has just compared to a cheese.

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“I thought we were talking about the Gorgonzola, said Arthur with disdain. “Don’t you care for Gorgonzola, Mr. Prescott?” said the dean, and they spent the rest of their walk debating the relative merits of English, French and Italian cheeses.

So of course, I had to make something with Gorgonzola, which in my opinion, is the King, the Queen and the Empress of all the cheeses in the world. A dish of farfalle pasta enhanced with Gorgonzola, butternut squash and pancetta sounded mouth-watering, so that’s what I made.

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INGREDIENTS:
1 lb farfalle pasta
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, diced
1 shallot, diced
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dry white wine
2 cups butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 cup pasta water
1 cup Gorgonzola crumbles
salt and pepper to taste

METHOD:
Boil the pasta in salted water until al dente, drain and reserve a cupful of the pasta water. Set both aside. (NOTE: this is a stock photo of farfalle pasta as I forgot to get a shot of the drained, cooked pasta.)

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In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat, and sauté the garlic, shallot, and sliced-up pancetta until the veggies are soft and pancetta is crispy, roughly 10-12 minutes.

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Add the butternut squash, season with salt and pepper, and sauté another 10 minutes. You want the squash softened but not mushy.

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Pour in the white wine and stir together. Let simmer for about 5 minutes.

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Add in the drained pasta and pour over some of the pasta cooking water. Stir again and warm over low heat.

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Sprinkle the cheese over the pasta and squash mixture, pasta and stir until just combined, then taste for seasoning. The Gorgonzola is marvelously sharp and salty, so you likely will not need any additional salt, and the pasta water makes the sauce lovely and creamy.

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This is a rich and delicious pasta dish, one that you don’t want to have on a regular basis but rather, once in a blue moon when you want to indulge and enjoy something unique and rare……rather like the Grail itself!

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Vaporetto 13 by Robert Girardi

Robert Girardi is one of my favorite “unknown” writers. He wrote Madeleine’s Ghost, which I blogged about previously, and Vaporetto 13 is another novel that combines cynicism, hope, the supernatural, and a gorgeous city as the backdrop. In this case, Venice. You can read about what makes Venice so uniquely gorgeous and special by checking out my food blog friend Luca Marchiori’s love letter to Venezia here. Or you can just read this book.

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When I first read Girardi’s novel, I fell in love with the city, and the dark, mysterious, beautiful, and yet sordid labyrinth of bridges, palazzos and stone that was described. Venice comes across like an aging prostitute who still looks beautiful and radiates charm, but yet has a dark, debauched side that also beckons. When I traveled to Venice a few years after reading this book, it struck me that these shadowy back alleys of The Eternal City juxtaposed with the bright, shiny, touristy Venezia, is the real Venice. It is both a jewel box of sumptuous colored glass and shimmering, watery reflections from the canal, and a dark, dank place of crowded buildings, garbage scows and stray cats.

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God, how I love Venice! It is my spiritual home. It is a city that is reflected back upon itself every minute in the waters of the Grand Canal, so full of of life and history and such extreme beauty that, at times, I found myself overwhelmed. There is, after all, only so much stunning golden light and beautiful canals and rosy architecture, that I can handle. Venice is sensory overload in the best sense of the word, and Girardi brings Venice to life so evocatively.

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Re-reading this book as many times as I have, I also have found myself loving the main character, Jack Squire, a money trader with a dark, cynical view on the world. I hated him when I first read the book, but as I have gotten older, I understand him much more. He seems a man that can’t ever be surprised by anything anymore, who looks on the world like a huge roulette table waiting on the ball to hit black, and yet there is still something shiny and hopeful in him that he tries to tuck away. I hate to admit it, but I still have this sense of idealism inside of me, for all that I feel surrounded by such an ugly world sometimes. I still want the good guy to win, I still want people to live happily ever after, I still want love to conquer all. So, it seems, does Jack. When he meets Caterina, a strange, otherworldly Venetian woman with strong ties to the past and history of La Serenissima,  he is struck by her oddness and yet enticed and enthralled by, that very same quality. She speaks to that part of him that is still young, hopeful and believing in miracles. They embark on a very mysterious love affair, yet he is never able to truly penetrate the mystery of who she is. Until the end, when he realizes who………and what…….she is. His view of the world is forever altered.

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One of the more entertaining characters is Jack’s friend, Rinio Donato, a quintessential Italian man, married, Catholic….and a complete womanizer. He is a hoot, and he drags Jack along to Torcello and other lagoon islands, including the very strange and creepy Sant’Ariano, adventuring, eating, and drinking as they go. The food descriptions alone are worth the read. In one passage, Jack attends a celebratory feast at Rinio’s house, where he is felt up by Rinio’s sister and gorges on a luscious Venetian feast that includes rolled veal chops stuffed with prosciutto and gorgonzola, and a salad of escarole, walnut and pear, which are just the precursors to the main feast, a roasted suckling pig with an apple in its mouth.

“The empty pasta bowls were cleared away and replaced with platters of rollini di vitelli – veal chops wrapped around prosciutto and gorgonzola cheese and baked in a marinade of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and white wine. Accompanying this was a salad of escarole, walnuts, and pears, and bottles of sweetish white wine from the Veneto. Italians eat slowly, their meals are long, drawn-out affairs, half food and wine, half air, which is to say animated conversation about nothing and everything.”

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I mean, how could anything stuffed with gorgonzola and prosciutto baked in lemon and olive oil and wine be bad? The store was out of escarole, so I instead opted for a salad of mixed greens with walnuts, pears and a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar and a bit of the blue cheese, to accompany the veal. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

2 veal chops, bone-in, about 1 inch thick apiece
Gorgonzola cheese, or other sharp blue
4 strips prosciutto, finely diced
1 shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup good, drinkable wine, red or white
5 cloves garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater

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Mixed greens – spinach, arugula and chicory is what I had on hand
Walnuts, toasted
2 pears, thinly sliced
Olive oil and lemon juice for the vinaigrette

METHOD

Pre-heat the oven to 375 F. In a small skillet, fry the prosciutto until just brown. Remove, and in the oil left in the pan, saute the diced shallot, with some red wine. Remove from the pan and let cool slightly, while you prepare your veal chops. Cut a small pocket into the veal, opposite side of the bone. Don’t cut all the way through the meat, just enough to be able to stuff the chop.

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Season the veal chops with salt and pepper. Mix the prosciutto and shallot with about half the packet of blue cheese, until nice and creamy but not melty. Stuff each veal chop with the mixture, and fasten with a toothpick to keep the cheese mixture inside the chop.

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In a good saute pan, heat a bit of olive oil and sear each veal chop about 3 minutes per side, but don’t char them. Let them rest a minute while you prepare the baking sauce. Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the white wine and the minced garlic in a cup and whisk together.

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Pour over the stuffed veal chops, reserving a bit for the end, cover, and put them in the oven for 15-20 minutes for a medium doneness, while you prepare the salad and vinaigrette, which is super difficult and time-consuming.

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Throw the mixed leaves into a large bowl, mix in the toasted walnuts, throw in the pears, sprinkle over a bit of the blue cheese, and then drizzle over a bit of olive oil, a bit more lemon juice, some sea salt,  and mix together vigorously. Pour over the salad and toss, probably with your hands to get the best amount of coating. That’s it. Very strenuous, as you can tell.

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You don’t want a lot of vinaigrette, just enough to lightly cover the salad, so using your very clean hands to toss is best here. When done mixing the salad, divide it onto two plates, take the veal from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Pour over the rest of the sauce you originally covered them with, put the chop onto the plate with the salad, and enjoy with some wine, preferably something light and Venetian, but hell, drink whatever type of wine you want! And you can do what I did, which was pretend I was sitting in a sunny cafe alongside the Grand Canal just off the Rialto Bridge, watching vaporettos and gondolas go by, and yearning for my Venice.

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“Still, as Rinio once said, what is a city, if not the people in it? What is Venice, without the peculiar, inventive race of men and women that built her up from the mud and reeds of the lagoon?”

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

Any book set in Venice is always moved to the top of my reading list. And of course, any book set in Venice about cooking and food is going to have the most special place in my heart. The Book of Unholy Mischief definitely takes the cake here! Luciano is the narrator, a young boy who is rescued from homelessness, poverty and theft on the streets of Venice. His rescuer is Chef Ferrero, who is chef to the Doge of Venice himself, and when he saves Luciano, he takes him back to the Doge’s Palace, cleans him up, and gives him a job as his apprentice. Ferrero is no ordinary chef, though. He is a rock star! In the late 1400s, not many chefs would be so adventurous as to try food from the New World such as potatoes, but Chef Ferrero does. He is also at the center of a conspiracy theory that encompasses Luciano as the book progresses……….think Chocolat meets The Da Vinci Code……though that is oversimplifying it somewhat.

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Luciano continues his education in the Doge’s kitchen under Ferrero’s tutelage, learning more about food than he ever dreamed – a typical bildungsroman, but set among the wealthy and learned of Venice. Of course, the plot is not all about food though – a mystical book purporting to give immortality to those who can decipher its secrets is said to be in Venice, and with his native intelligence, Luciano starts to suspect that Chef Ferrero (who he has come to see as a father figure) might well possess this book and be using it in his innovative and magical cooking techniques.

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Well, hell. A book about food, about cooking, about mystical books, about Venice………of course I had to read it! All my favorite things all in one place! The food descriptions, in particular, are enough to make any foodie weep with joy as the sensual and beautiful pleasure of cheese, wine, meat, olives, cakes, spices and herbs, seafood, are detailed in amazingly graphic and drool-inciting images and words. Even humble foods like onions, which we all tend to overlook, are given a power when glorified and honored by the Chef himself as he talks about the effect of food upon the human psyche.

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My eyes watered from the onion fumes, and the stinging tears diverted my curiosity. I aked, “Why do onions make us cry?” Chef Ferrero shrugged as a tear slid down his cheek. “You may as well ask why one cries in the presence of great art, or at the birth of a child. Tears of awe, Luciano. Let them flow.” I wiped my eyes but the chef let tears roll freely down his face. A tear dripped from his chin as he scooped up the diced onion for the stockpot. His awe would season the soup.

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I just love that passage. It exemplifies the joys of the most simple foods in cooking, and also reminds me that it’s the most simple and humble of foods that create the most awesome flavors. How boring and tasteless most savory dishes would be without the addition of onion? I shudder to think. And with that in mind, I was inspired to make onions the star of a dish instead of an ingredient, so here we go with roasted onions with fennel, red wine vinegar, and basil, taken from my idol Nigella Lawson’s fabulous book Nigellissima. I made this amazing dish as part of a birthday meal for my dear friend Jade and her two sons, including a fantastic white cake with white vanilla buttercream frosting. It was only my third time ever making a white cake from scratch, and I was quite pleased with how everything turned out.

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INGREDIENTS
4 medium red onions
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
3 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh cracked pepper
4 cups of fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
Sea salt to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 425F. Slice the onions lengthwise, keeping the stems. Like this.

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Arrange on a baking tray and pour over the olive oil.

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Sprinkle with the fennel seeds and black pepper.

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Bake for an hour, then remove and add sea salt. The onions will have darkened and crisped up outside, with the insides softened. Let cool, then sprinkle over the red wine vinegar.

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Add the basil leaves like you would a salad, and add more vinegar and salt if it needs it.

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It’s delicious, light and a perfect side accompaniment to a heavier meat or pasta dish. The fennel seed echoes the slight licorice flavor of the basil, and the red wine vinegar offsets it beautifully. So good and easy!

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Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Have you ever read a book that you nearly instantaneously fell in love with? My friend Angela recommended Delicious! by Ruth Reichl, which I’d seen on various lists of foodie books, but dismissed as “chick lit.” Those of you who follow my blog know of my disdain for “chick lit.” Yes, I’m a literary snob and I make no apologies for that. Someone has to hold the standard against horrible books like 50 Shades of Grey and those hideous Twilight books. But I digress.

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The premise is simple – a young lady named Billie with an amazing palate and sense of smell, moves to NYC, gets a job at the food magazine Delicious!, becomes part of their family, becomes close to the Fontanari family who runs what I think must be my fantasy Italian deli store, and discovers a hidden cache of letters from WWII between a little girl dealing with her father’s disappearance in the war, and the late, great James Beard. But that’s just the surface. This book taught me so many amazing things, about libraries, cooking, the nature of family relationships, and exactly how to taste cheese. Oh, heaven!

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One of the things I learned about from this book was how Italians were treated in this country during the second World War. I think of spaghetti and meatballs as one of the most quintessentially American dishes – hello, Chef Boyardee! In point of fact, there was an Italian chef called Boiardi whose cooking techniques helped send preserved food to the Allied troops, and he is widely considered a hero of the war. But there was also a hatred for Italians among many people, because of the fact that Italy had initially sided with Nazi German. So many Italian-Americans were shunned, treated horribly, and in fact, their food was referred to as “the food of the enemy.” Shocking for me to learn, but sadly, not surprising, as we see how many American citizens of other backgrounds and ethnicity are treated in the here and now.

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The Fontanaris – Sal, his wife Rosalie, and their daughter, take Billie under their Italian wing, and invite her to family events left and right. During a celebration of Rosalie’s birthday meal, which she of course cooks herself (no self-respecting Italian mamma would allow ANYONE else to cook a meal!), this is what she makes. Tell me that doesn’t sound heavenly.

She made Jewish artichokes – which were so crisp they crackled when you put them in your mouth – lasagna, porchetta, and a puntarelle salad.

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I could not find puntarelle (no surprise as it’s hard to find in the States) but the recipe I found said that endive leaves could be used. So I used endives, which have one hell of a peppery bite. The anchovy vinaigrette was absolutely perfect with it, and I give the method for it below, as well. But the star of this blog post is the Jewish-style deep fried artichokes, which was the first time I’d tried making them this way. May I just say they were sooooooo delicious! The prep time for the artichokes is a bit of a pain in the ass, so be warned. But the end result is worth it.

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Method courtesy of Tori Avey’s awesome website. She is one great food historian!

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INGREDIENTS
2 large green globe artichokes (or purple Romanesco if you can find them)
2 cups olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 large lemons

4 endives, thinly sliced
3-4 garlic cloves
6 oil-packed anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Small sprinkling of sea salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

METHOD
Rinse the artichokes, and trim the stem off the bottom, and pull off about 4 layers of the hard, outer leaves.

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Slice off the top part of the denuded artichoke so you have the bottom halves only.

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Cut the artichokes in half, and using a spoon or melon baller, remove the fuzz from the choke hearts. It’s very bitter so get all of it.

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Rub the artichokes with lemon, and soak them in a bowl of ice water and more lemon juice to keep them fresh and prevent browning. Soak for about 10 minutes while you prepare the salad.

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Slice the endives into ribbons.

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Finely mince the garlic cloves and the anchovy fillets. Mix together with the olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice and salt. Pour over the endive slices, mix well and chill in the refrigerator while you finish the artichokes.

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Remove the chokes from their ice bath, pat try, then steam them for 15 minutes in a steamer basket over boiling water.

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Heat the 4 cups of olive oil on high in a in a large frying pan. Slice the artichokes into quarters, and add to the very hot oil. Be careful of spatters.

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Cook for 7 minutes on each side, so they get nice and brown and crispy and crunchy. Total cook time is about 15 minutes. Drain on paper towels.

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Squeeze over lemon juice, and cram down your throat along with the peppery, deliciously bitter, garlicky endive salad. It is one of the best things I’ve made yet! YUM!

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