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?”

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The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

I didn’t actually intend to blog this book, not that it wasn’t enjoyable but because I had actually forgotten I had it on my bookshelves. As fortune would have it, I found some late-summer squash blossoms at my nearby grower’s market yesterday morning, along with many other garden goodies. Anyway, back to the book. Set in Italy, obviously, The Tuscan Child is a pretty good read about a young woman named Joanna whose father Hugo has died and left her what’s left of his property and fortune in England. Arranging his funeral, she naturally has to go through letters and paperwork and discovers among his things a love letter from a woman named Sofia. Sofia, it turns out, rescued Hugo during WWII, when his fighter plane was shot down over her Tuscan village of San Salvatore, and of course, they fall in love. But of course, true love never runs smoothly, particularly during a world war when the country you’ve been trapped in is invaded by disgusting Nazis.

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The book is told from two viewpoints and in two points in history. Joanna and her journey from England to Italy to learn more about Sofia and the Tuscan child she mentions in her letter, wanting to find out if this woman and her father had a baby together. Hugo’s story details his plane crash, how he and Sofia fall in love, and the occupation of Italy during WWII, which was fascinating to me. I never realized that Italy actually turned on Germany and surrendered to the Allied Forces, but the fact that the Nazi army was still actually physically in Italy made it much more difficult to fight them, since the Nazis were particularly nasty after their one-time partners turned against them.

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Hugo is part of the Allied effort to fully get the Nazis out of Italy when his plane is shot down. He hides in an old, abandoned church and is found by Sofia, who has struggles of her own in the village. Her husband is gone, feared dead and later in the book, she is accused of collaborating with the Nazis. And poor Joanna is kind of an annoying character, initially whiny and passive and self-pitying. It’s not until she goes to Italy to find Hugo and Sofia’s “Tuscan child” that she starts taking initiative, seeing the bigger picture, and essentially growing up.  She stays in San Salvatore with a wonderful woman named Paola, her daughter Angelina, and Angelina’s newborn daughter. Probably the best parts of this book were the cooking passages. Of course, being in Tuscany, there has to be food and food galore is part of this book. Paola cooks homemade pasta, brodo with tomatoes and stale bread, artichokes, asparagus, and the thing that made me get this book out and reread it for today’s post – the stuffed squash blossoms.

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“Let’s get on with the meal, Mamma. I am hungry and I am sure Signorina Joanna is, too.” “Then lay the table and slice the bread,” Paola said, going ahead of us into the cool kitchen. “And put out the salami and the cheese and wash those radishes.” She turned to me. “Now pay attention if you want to see how we stuff the zucchini blossoms.” She put some of the white cheese into a bowl, chopped up and added some of the herb I had now decided was mint, then grated some lemon zest on it. Then she took a spoon and carefully stuffed this mixture into each of the blossoms.

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I’d had them when I visited Italy a few years ago and they were divine, lightly coated with a lemony batter and stuffed with creamy, herbed cheese so I decided that, having found these beautiful yellow flowers, I was going to make them. So I did.

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INGREDIENTS
12 squash blossoms
3/4 cup of flour
1 teaspoon sea salt and ground black pepper
1/2 cup of San Pellegrino sparkling limonata or any lemon seltzer
1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
Lemon zest to taste
Fresh mint
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a cast-iron skillet until shimmering.

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Finely chop the mint. I got to bust out the mezzaluna for this so I was happy.

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Mix the mint with the Ricotta cheese and zest the lemon into this mixture. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper as needed.

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Gently open the squash blossoms and stuff each cavity with the lemony, minty cheese mixture. The smell is awesome, with the cool mint offset by the sharp lemon.

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Don’t overfill them or they won’t close. Seal them by twisting together the head petals. Set aside.

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Prepare the batter by adding the salt and pepper to the flour, mixing together, and slowly pouring in the limonata. Stir to mix until you have a relatively thick batter for coating the flowers.

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Dip each stuffed blossom into the batter, shake off the excess, and fry for about 2 minutes per side, until golden brown.

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Let drain on paper towels and devour!

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And if you have any batter left, throw in some shaved Parmesan and make cheesy fritters. They were an excellent accompaniment to these gorgeous squash blossoms.

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In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Happy New Year! To start off 2018, I take us back to Venice, dear readers. But it’s not the Venice of dreams and watery, lyrical descriptions. This 16th-century Venice, elegantly depicted In The Company of the Courtesan, is a hard, rough place, stinking of rotten canal water and fish, and is as often the deathplace of dreams as it is the making of them.

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I’ve always found stories of the Venetian courtesans fascinating since I saw the marvelous film Dangerous Beauty, based on the biography The Honest Courtesan, which details the life and literary ambitions of Veronica Franco, a poet and courtesan in the late 1500s. This book, also about a courtesan in Venice, is told from the point of view of Bucino, an endearingly grumpy and intelligent dwarf who is the servant, companion, household capo, and most importantly, friend of the courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini, whose beauty, intelligence and charm are sharply contrasted by Bucino’s looks.

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After Fiammetta and Bucino arrive in Venice, wounded in body and spirit after the brutal Sack of Rome, they find her mother dead, and the evil housekeeper skimming the till. Fiammetta befriends Elena Crusichi, also called “La Draga,” who is a healer and beautician of some repute. Bucino sells some of their hidden gemstones to get them back on their feet and one afternoon, he thinks to buy some sugared fruit for Fiammetta, to cheer her up. In one of the most charming passages in the book, they reminisce about the kinds of foods they most wish for and miss from their heady days in Rome, when Fiammetta had hired one of Rome’s best chefs for her courtesan’s kitchen.

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“You know what I miss most of all, Bucino? The food. I am so hungry for taste every day that if I were still intact, I would sell my virginity for a good dish of sardines fried in orange and sugar. Or veal with morello cherry sauce and squash baked with cinnamon and nutmeg.”  “No, not veal, wild boar. With honey and juniper. And a salad of endives, herbs and caper flowers. And for dessert…” “Ricotta tart with quinces and apples.” “Peaches in grappa.” “Marzipan cakes.” “Ending with sugared fruits.” “Oh, oh.” And we are laughing now. “Help me. I am drooling here.” I pull a grimy paper from my pocket and uncover the remains of the sugared pears I bought in the piazza. “Here. Try this.” I say. And I lift it up to her. “Here’s to the best whore and the best cook under the same roof again.”

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Sugared pears –  also known as candied pears or caramelized pears – are a classic Italian recipe, and can be eaten as a dessert, or with a strong Gorgonzola cheese. This is the method that worked for me, based on Chuck Hughes’ recipe. With, of course, my own flavor tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
2 red pears
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup regular sugar or brown sugar
1/3 cup Pinot Noir red wine
Zest and juice of 1 lemon

METHOD
Melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat, and slice the pears into lengthwise quarters, removing the seeds and stems. Add the pears to the butter in the pan.

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Gently cook, turning occasionally, for about 5-6 minutes, until they start browning a bit. The smell will indicate they are cooking, too.

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Sprinkle over the sugar and continue cooking until the sugar starts to caramelize.

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Pour over the red wine and let bubble up for another 5 minutes.

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Remove the pears to a plate to cool,and add the lemon juice to the red wine and sugar in the pan. Increase the heat to high, and reduce the liquid, so it thickens and becomes somewhat syrupy, approximately 7 minutes.

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Pour over the pears, grate over the lemon zest, and enjoy either with vanilla ice cream or with a nice wedge of strong blue cheese. It is so delicious, and a perfect sweet start to the new year.

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Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Though I disliked the movie, which was absolutely nothing like the book (and not in a good way,) Under the Tuscan Sun is so beautifully written that you almost feel as though you’re walking through sunlit fields of sunflowers in the countryside surrounding Cortona. Normally, I don’t go for these types of memoirs, simply because the majority of them – and I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love – are such self-absorbed, whinily written, so-called journeys of discovery by wealthy, pampered, spoiled women who don’t appreciate what they have. Frances Mayes’ gorgeous tale of her life in the stunning countryside of Tuscany, however, is truly a voyage of discovery.

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The author is a teacher who, with her husband, buys a rundown villa in the town of Cortona. They fix it up when they return each summer, and it becomes not just a second home, but a true oasis for them both. They become friends with the natives of Cortona, and eventually truly become citizens of this magical little town tucked into the hillsides of Tuscany.

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I’ve actually visited Cortona and found it as beautiful as any place in Italy. Pitched roofs, pigeons, a historic town square, the ubiquitous flowers and trees that scream Italy, cornerside bars and cafes, yellow-striped canopies that wave in the breeze………Cortona is the quintessential small Italian town that charms and seduces. Below is a photo I took in that wonderful town. It is a place that is filled with happy memories, not to mention it had one of the only hotels that still had on the heating during that chilly late spring.

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The house Frances buys in Cortona is called Bramasole. Isn’t that just gorgeous? It means “yearning for the sun.” I think that is all of us, no matter where we are. We are all yearning for the warmth and comfort of the sunshine, especially in the depths of winter. And of course, one of the things she does in her new house is cook. She cooks up a storm, utilizing the seasonal bounty that is Italy in the summer and winter, and her cooking echoes the ongoing work she and her husband do to the house. She learns to use the raw materials to enhance the beautiful life in Italy they have created together, just as they have created this gorgeous oasis of a home in a country not theirs by birth, but by love.

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I chose her recipe for sage pesto with basil, because I needed to use up some of my homegrown basil, and also because I just adore a good pesto and hadn’t had any in awhile. It is so nice to have around, to spread on toast or atop a piece of grilled meat, or  with roasted vegetables. And it is so simple, and yet so gratifying to make! Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the sage pesto:
1 cup basil leaves
1 cup sage leaves
1 cup walnuts
5 cloves garlic
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Using a food processor or a small food chopper, finely chop the sage, basil, and garlic until very finely chopped.

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Add the walnuts and pulse again until everything is finely chopped into an almost paste-like texture.  Add the olive oil gradually, in a thin stream, pulsing all the while.

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Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper here if necessary. Add in the lemon juice and sprinkle in the Parmesan and pulse again until the sauce thickens. Taste again and season as needed. Set aside.

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I served it atop some nicely grilled pork chops and it was sublime!

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Even better as leftovers the next day, as you can see.

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The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

Thanks to Dr. H for the photography!

The Last Supper by the immortal Leonardo da Vinci always fascinated me, even as a child. Just looking at it takes you into that world, sitting beside Jesus, watching the disciples react to the news he would soon die, and noticing the amazing details of the work itself.

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Reading The Secret Supper took me back to my days of persistently asking questions about the nature of religion and God, because this book raises almost as many questions as it answers. Being raised Catholic, of course I’d heard the story of Jesus asking his disciples to take this bread and eat it, and take this wine and drink it, and the mystery of transmogrification, so seeing this painting as a child made me start to question what I had been taught. Of course, when you’re young and asking questions about religion, it tends to not go over well. In this book, when the main character, Father Agostino Leyre, begins asking questions about the nature of faith, God, and Leonardo’s masterpiece, it’s no different for him.

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One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is its similarity to The Name of the Rose, my all-time favorite book in the world. The monks, the literary mystery, one man trying to answer questions………although this one is less weighty on philosophy. Still a marvelous read, if you’re into the Italian Renaissance and symbolism in paintings and Da Vinci himself. Or if you’re into references about Italian cuisine, you’ll enjoy this book, too.

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My stomach was making noises under my habit. With solicitude, the librarian led me to the kitchen and managed to rustle up a few scraps from suppertime………”It’s panzanella, Father,” he explained, helping me to a still-warm bowl that heated my freezing hands. “Panzanella?” “Eat. It’s a bread soup, made with cucumber and onion. It will please you.”

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Panzanella is essentially a bread salad, rustic peasant food that used stale bread. Most likely, the very poor had only bread and onions as their panzanella base. It’s become traditional to include mozzarella, tomatoes and occasionally cucumbers, and an herb-based dressing with olive oil and vinegar, and being that I like to roast vegetables, I had the idea of roasting asparagus and garlic alongside the bread croutons, replacing the more usual cucumber which can get soggy. And being that it’s summertime and way too hot for soup, I opted for a traditional panzanella salad.

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This is the method that worked for me, based on the New York Times version by the great Melissa Clark, with requisite changes by yours truly. As always.

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INGREDIENTS
1 lb. asparagus, rinsed and trimmed
1 large head of garlic
1 stale baguette, cubed
3 tablespoons regular olive oil
3 tablespoons grated Parmeggiano Reggiano cheese
2 large, ripe tomatoes at room temperature
6 oz. fresh mozzarella, cubed
1 large red onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons Meyer lemon olive oil
1 bunch of fresh basil
1 bunch of fresh oregano
3 tablespoons capers
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 400F. Spread out the asparagus on a parchment-sheet lined baking tray. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Slice the top off the head of garlic, drizzle with more olive oil and some salt and pepper, and put into a well-soaked terracotta garlic roaster.

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Lay the cubed bread pieces on another baking sheet, and toss with olive oil, salt, pepper and Parmeggiano-Reggiano cheese.

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Place all three items in the hot oven and bake for up to 20 minutes apiece, checking frequently. The bread will cook fastest so don’t let it burn and remove when it is golden-brown. The asparagus will take a few more minutes, and the garlic will take longest, so plan to cook it for up to 45 minutes.

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Cut up the tomatoes, and place them in a bowl with the mozzarella.

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Finely mince the onion, add a tablespoonful of garlic paste, and add to the tomatoes and mozzarella. Stir to mix everything.

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Finely dice the basil and oregano.

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Combine the vinegar, Dijon mustard, lemon juice, and the cut-up herbs in a large measuring cup, then slowly add in 3 tablespoons of Meyer lemon olive oil, whisking together to form a vinaigrette. Taste for seasoning.

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Add the cooled bread cubes to the tomatoes and cheese, then cut up the asparagus into smaller pieces and mix with the tomatoes and bread.

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Squeeze the roasted garlic cloves out of the garlic head, and add to the tomato mixture. Toss in the capers and stir together.

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Pour over the vinaigrette, and stir to mix well. Allow to sit for about 30 minutes, to let the bread soak up the delicious juices, which is the whole point of this dish.

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Enjoy with some grilled chicken or on its own as a light summer lunch. Delicious on a hot afternoon with some cool rosé wine.

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The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

Photography by me.

Are you a Venetian at heart? I am, and any book set in Venice has a special place on my bookshelf. Venice is the most beautiful place on earth, because it shimmers. That’s the only way I can describe it. The waters surrounding the islands, the lagoons with their sea-green waves, the sight of the church towers from Piazza San Marco or Isola di San Michele from the Fondamenta Nuova……….pictures don’t do it justice and I have rarely read a book description that fully does, either. You simply have to visit Venice and see its gorgeous, watery-reflected beauty for yourself.

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The Mirror Thief is set in three separate historical timeframes, and in three different Venices. Venice, Italy is the heart of the tale and where the story of conspiracy, theft, and some very odd metaphysical concepts of time, starts with the story of Crivano, an alchemist who wants to steal the secret of Venetian glassmaking in the late 1500s. Venice Beach, California is literally the midpoint of the book and the historical setting of late 1950s and the beatnik poet scene in which Stanley seeks out the author of the book that has affected him profoundly, and finally, the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2003, when Curtis goes on a quest to find Stanley, and instead, finds the book that has colored his entire life, The Mirror Thief, an alchemical book of magical poetry written about Crivano himself.

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The three timeframes are connected incredibly well, due to Seay’s expertise in both writing and connecting disparate concepts. I was hooked from the first sentence, and although I had to make sure and not lose the threads of the complex storylines and historical timeframes, honestly, this is the most engrossing book I’ve read in years. It also made me consider the concept of mirrors and reflections – do we exist only because we are reflected back to ourselves in a mirror? Can the mirror ever reflect anything but the truth? What is the truth, and how do we see it reflected back to ourselves?

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My favorite line is:  It is difficult, but probably necessary, to remember that books always know more than their authors do. They are always wiser. Once they are in the world, they develop their own peculiar ideas. I’ve never written a book, but I agree with the idea that books do become something completely different than what their authors intended. It’s inevitable, don’t you think? In reading any book, we all bring our own ideas, preconceived notions, heartbreaks, beliefs and convictions.

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A scene where Crivano arrives at an inn in the Rialto area to meet Tristao, one of his co-conspirators, featured some truly delicious sounding foods, including what I took to be another description for risotto.

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One of Anzolo’s Friulian serving-girls has emerged from the kitchen, bearing sweet white wine from Sopron. Before Crivano’s cup is full, a second girl arrives with food: tiny artichokes, rice porridge, Lombardy quail stuffed with mincemeat……………Crivano takes a spoonful of rice porridge – rich with beef broth and mushrooms – and chews it slowly, trying to imagine what Narkis would have him do.

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Risotto – rice porridge – is one of those deceptively simple dishes. It’s essentially stirring liquid into rice for 25-30 minutes until absorbed. Yet, like any other dish that relies on simplicity for its tastiness, it also relies on high-quality ingredients. Arborio rice is what is usually used, or Vialone Nano, which is a bit harder to find where I am. I decided some beef-flavored risotto bursting with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese was in order this Sunday afternoon, based on the method clearly outlined in Chestnuts and Truffles post on making risotto like a Nonna. Ciao, bella!

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INGREDIENTS
1 14-oz jar artichoke hearts
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup baby bella mushrooms (sliced)
3 cups spinach
6 cups beef stock and 1 beef stock cube
1 cup white wine
1 red onion, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup parmesan cheese

METHOD
Saute the mushrooms in half the olive oil and butter, about 10 minutes.

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Add the spinach, mix well and cook until the spinach has wilted. Set aside.

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Heat the beef broth in a large pan. Bring to a low boil and keep it hot.

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In another pan over medium heat, add the rest of the olive oil and butter, and cook the onion and garlic until soft.

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Pour in the arborio rice, and stir. The idea is to get the butter and onion flavors into the rice, and also to toast it a bit, again for added flavor. This is called la tostatura, as the rice toasts. So says my friend and awesome chef Luca Marchiori.

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Splash over the white wine, and give the rice another mix. Then start slowly adding the hot beef stock, one ladleful at a time. Stir each ladleful until the liquid has completely absorbed.

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Continue in this vein, repeating a ladleful of stock and stirring until absorbed. It’ll probably take a good 25-30 minutes. I find stirring risotto very therapeutic, along the lines of making caramelized onions. It soothes the heart and mind.

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When the risotto is al dente, add in the wilted spinach, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed. Sprinkle over the Parmesan and again, stir.

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Serve with more of the same white wine you used for the risotto, and eat with sheer pleasure in your heart, dreaming of Venice.

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Thanks to MC for the photography.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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METHOD
Heat the oven to 350F.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

Thanks to JP for the photography.

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

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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

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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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The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Dedicated to my dear friend Kate Parker. “Well, this is Italian rain!”

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I came across the book The Enchanted April while browsing on Amazon.com one afternoon when I should have been working. Having loved the film so much, I decided the time had come to see how faithful to the book it had been. The book cover was also dreamily beautiful, showing the cypress trees which Tuscany is so famous for, that I had to have it. Yes, I judge books by their covers. Sue me.

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The book is somewhat dated in its language and structure, and I actually found that I preferred the film version. Surprising, because I usually find film adaptations subpar compared to the book original (The Lord of the Rings trilogy being a notable exception.) The premise, four dissatisfied London women, in the depressing time after WWI, decide to share the expense of renting a castle in Italy for the month of April. Their home lives, for various reasons, are somewhat unhappy and this is their escape to try and find peace and happiness. Lottie Wilkins and Rose Arbuthnot make the initial move to rent the castle, and invite Lady Caroline Dester (nicknamed Scrap) and Mrs. Fisher, two upper-class ladies to join them, without realizing their higher-echelon-of-society place assures Mrs. Fisher and Lady Caroline that they can take over the castle. So they do, leading to some very funny misunderstandings.

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I did enjoy the book, though. It’s a wonderful escape, with the lush descriptions of flowers and the sea, and the interactions between the four women make for some genuinely amusing reading. I think why I liked this book so much (and obviously why I love the film so much) is because it reminded me of my trip to Italy with my wonderful friend Kate, a few years ago. We were both desperate to escape the chill and the rain of England, where I landed and where she lived at the time, but when we got to Italy, all we found was……yes, you guessed it. Rain! It’s so funny now, but at the time we were both quite peeved that the rain would destroy our holiday! So I kept reminding Kate, just as Lottie tells Rose when they arrive in a downpour, “well, this is Italian rain!” Because, of course, Italian rain is so much more picturesque! It still makes me laugh to remember.

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Lady Caroline – Scrap – just wants to be left in peace. A society beauty, she is used to being gawked at and constantly surrounded by admirers, and simply wants to be somewhere where she isn’t always grabbed at, because, as she puts it “I don’t want to talk or think or constantly be the center of attention. You know how that is, right?”  Not really, Lady C., but I’m sure it’s rough. One afternoon, the four ladies sit down to a beautiful al fresco tea with macaroons, which are much loved by Lady Caroline, and the scene was described so beautifully that I was inspired to give them a whirl. Not being the world’s greatest baker, I decided against the fancy French macarons with their beautiful array of colors, and instead opted for chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons. No one here complained, though.

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“It appeared that Mrs. Wilkins had not been seen since breakfast. Mrs. Arbuthnot thought she had probably gone for a picnic. Scrap missed her. She ate the enormous macaroons, the best and biggest she had ever come across, in silence. Tea without Mrs. Wilkins was dull; and Mrs. Arbuthnot had that fatal flavour of motherliness about her……of coaxing one to eat.”

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This is the super easy method that worked for me, based on Once Upon a Chef’s wonderful recipe, tweaked slightly by me. As usual. ‘Cause that’s just what I do.

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INGREDIENTS
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
14 oz bag of sweetened coconut flakes

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1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond essence
1 teaspoon cinnamon

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1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup rum

METHOD

As with any baking, make sure all your ingredients are at room temperature before you start, particularly the eggs. Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Using your most awesome Kitchen Aid stand mixer, whisk the egg whites and the salt until they are fluffy and stiff, and hold a point. This is what you want.

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In another bowl, combine the coconut, the milk, and the vanilla, almond and cinnamon. Mix well and set aside.

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Fold the fluffy egg whites into the coconut mixture, making sure to get some air into the batter. This will make them light and give them texture, as well as adding to the flavor.

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Scoop about a tablespoon measure each onto a baking tray lined with parchment paper. Don’t put them too closely together, or they’ll meld together or burn.

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Pop into the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes, keeping an eye on them. When the tops are golden brown, take them out of the oven and allow to cool.

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In a metal saucepan, very gently heat the heavy cream just until bubbles start forming around the sides. Turn off the heat, put in the chocolate chips, cover and leave for 10 minutes.

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Stir together and witness the alchemy of cooking when you see the luscious chocolate ganache form. Add the rum, stir together and let cool slightly.

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Dip in the bottom of each coconut macaroon, and when each one has a nice, chocolaty bottom, put in the refrigerator to cool thoroughly.

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Drizzle the remaining chocolate artistically (and you can see how well I did it!) over the macaroons, then chill in the refrigerator for an hour, so the chocolate can set.

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Eat, in true repressed British style, with a cup of strong Earl Grey tea, or enjoy as an afternoon snack with a glass of wine. Much more Italian that way, I think.

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With the rum flavoring in the chocolate, and the additions of the almond and cinnamon, these macaroons have a lovely, exotic taste that hints at a vacation by the sea, preferably in an Italian villa.

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.

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He’s approached by Mr. Greenleaf who mistakes him for a close college friend of his son, Dickie, who has run off to Italy and essentially gone native there. 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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