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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The Feet Say Run by Dan Blum

Thanks to AL and ABH for the photography.

The Feet Say Run is a beautifully written, lyrical, and somewhat surreal book. The main character’s time on the island, where the book opens, has a strong, otherwordly vibe that also presents the world around us in, at times, a brutally realistic fashion.

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Hans Jaeger, the narrator, is trapped on an island, we are never quite sure where. He’s there with some other odd characters, so I was immediately put into mind of the TV series “Lost.” It has that kind of magical realism, weird feelings where things seem dreamlike and hyperreal at the same time.

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The theme of questioning one’s life and choices, the “dark night of the soul,” as St. John of the Cross so eloquently put it, is at the heart of this book. Very existentially, Hans remembers his previous life and questions his ongoing existence, because let’s face it, he’s done some pretty crappy things. He worked for the Nazis in  Germany, despising them at the same time. Who among us hasn’t done that, albeit on a less extreme level. We get up, we oftentimes have to do things we don’t like or want to do. But we do them, in order to survive, to exist. As does Hans.

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The storyline arcs between Hans’ entrapment on the island and his struggle for survival there, and his life before, both the awfulness of the Nazis and the beauty of his own love story with Hilda. The lyricism in Blum’s writing – and he is quite an excellent writer – gives the brutal passages an almost fantasylike feeling, like you’re experiencing the horrors through a film of milky glass.

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Hans is not the most likeable character in the world, and there are times when I felt like he was trying to make excuses for what he had done in his life, to try and justify the choices he made that led him to being a Nazi. He’s participated in some terrible things, and given the current state of our country and the fear and anger so many people feel these days, I found it sadly and frighteningly timely to read.

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Two food passages stuck out to me. The first is Hans remembering his mother and aunt having lunch in pre-war Germany at a very posh French restaurant. Hans’ mother is a terrible snob, and she meets her match that day with the waiter. If you’ve experienced a true French waiter, you must know that no one, and I mean NO ONE, outsnobs him. Hans’ mother keeps trying to get the waiter to explain what is in the sandwich, and he continues to needle her by saying there is nothing in the sandwich “except ze bread, madame,” “ze limburger” and “ze tomato.” It gave me the giggles, reading about this dreadful woman being put in her place by a supercilious waiter.

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The second passage takes place on the unnamed island. Andre is one of his Hans’ compatriots, and one day, foraging for food, they come across a cache of dove eggs. Hallelujah, it’s breakfast time! Hans watches Andre with consternation, thinking to himself – quite facetiously – how they will have their feast of eggs.

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Talking to him and listening to his babbling replies. Look, Andre. One of the doves has laid an egg! Are you going to help me cook it? How should we prepare it, do you think? Scrambled? Eggs Benedict?

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I considered doing something involving limburger cheese, but aside from the fact that it is not available in the United States, it really has a horrendous smell. I love a strong, raspy cheese, but limburger is a bit much, even for me. So another strong-scented and flavored cheese seemed in order – gorgonzola! And having done Eggs Benedict in an earlier post, I thought about what else I’d love to eat if stuck on a deserted island, and smoked salmon immediately came to mind. So baked eggs with smoked salmon, gorgonzola and spinach was my riff on the desert island dove eggs. I think mine is probably a bit better.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on too many oeufs en cocotte recipes to mention. The addition of blue cheese is my own.

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INGREDIENTS
6 large eggs
2 cups fresh spinach
1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola
6 oz. smoked salmon
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Salt and pepper for seasoning

METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F. Spray three large ramekins with butter spray.

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Wilt the spinach in a skillet, adding some salt for added flavor.

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When the greens are wilted, line the bottom of the three ramekins with it.

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Sprinkle some gorgonzola atop the spinach in each ramekin.

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Then add the smoked salmon to each dish, covering the cheese and spinach. Crack two eggs into each ramekin.

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Top the eggs with one spoonful of heavy cream each.

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Sprinkle over more gorgonzola on the eggs, and season with salt and pepper. Put the ramekins onto a shallow baking tray, and bake for 20-25 minutes. You don’t want them to burn or get leathery, just set.

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Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a bit, and put additional strips of the smoked salmon atop each ramekin. 2017-03-05 20.00.58_resized.jpg

Serve with toast and some lovely rose wine.  It’s simple, yet rich and sumptuous, something that a snotty French waiter or a refugee on an island would both be happy to eat.

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And if you’re interested in reading more of Dan’s work, check out his scathingly satirical blog The Rotting Post. If you’re a fan of sarcasm, snark and smart-assery, you will love his writing!