Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This is the method that worked for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

If I could have any set of books with me on a desert island, I’d choose the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, the Johannes Cabal books by Jonathan L. Howard, and The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series by the one and only Carlos Ruiz Zafon. This mysterious, lyrical, dark and yet oddly uplifting series, set in Barcelona before, during and after their bloody Civil War, sucked me in from the first two books The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, and the third one, The Prisoner of Heaven, is just as enthralling.

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Here, we pick up the threads of Daniel Sempere, the protagonist from the first book. He is married, has a baby boy, is running his family bookstore, and continues his friendship with the jester-like Fermin Romero de Torres, who is one of the funniest characters in literature. Fermin is a hoot!

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The Prisoner of Heaven is the third book centering around the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, but if you haven’t read the other two novels, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, (both of which I have previously blogged) don’t let that stop you from picking this one up – because you see, Zafón has done something brilliant and perfectly fitting with these books. You can start with any book and read them in any order, and they all remain connected through this one, single, perfect place. In this book the story of Fermin Romero de Torres is detailed out piece by fascinating piece, and Daniel is given more information on the history of his parents. The relationship between Daniel and Bea is also in question – and references to both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game crop up throughout the book in, sometimes, the most surprising of places.

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You can also clearly see Ruiz Zafón’s love for the works of Dumas and in particular, The Count of Monte Cristo. I mean, a secret prisoner, a Gothically dark and unbearable prison, the oddly beautiful way he describes dirt and corruption, making these otherwise revolting elements such a strong part of the overall narrative. Dumas seems to exert a non-stop fascination for modern writers in the Gothic tradition, which makes sense if you think about it. Secret passages, secret identities, secret loves……..all those literary elements that hook us and fascinate us still.

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However, the darkness that seems to live around every corner in post-war Barcelona is well on display here. Barcelona herself is as much a character in this book as anyone else, both the inherent beauty and mystery of this city, as well as its moody darkness and the gorgeous and run-down amusement park atop Mount Tibidabo, which featured prominently in both previous books and is still a huge part of the overall framework here. I can’t imagine these books taking place in any other place in the world, so strongly do they connect to the seedy, dark, violent and beautiful metropolis that is Barcelona.

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There are not too many food references in this book, but that’s ok because I was inspired by one of my favorite cookbooks of all time, The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman. His method for making that classic Spanish dish huevos a la flamenco, or flamenco-style eggs, is so yum that I had to recreate it in honor of Fermin’s eternal love of serrano ham. The nice thing about this particular method is that you can scale it up or down depending on how many people you’re serving, with the ratio of 1-2 eggs per person.

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup cubed ham, Serrano preferably but use whatever you can find
1/2 cup chorizo
1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh or canned
4 eggs
1/2 cup cooked green peas (use frozen bagged ones here)
4-6 strips roasted red peppers, from a jar
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Heat the oven to 415F, and in a cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil and toss in the ham and chorizo. Cook until nicely browned.

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Chop up the tomatoes and line the bottom of four oven-safe ramekins with them.

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Spoon in the cooked ham and chorizo.

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Crack an egg over the tomatoes and meat mixture and season lightly with salt and pepper.

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Toss a spoonful of peas over each egg yolk.

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Add 3-4 strips of roasted red pepper on top of the peas.

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Bake for 15 minutes, or until the egg whites have set but the yolk is still a bit runny, because you need that unctuous golden ooziness to make this dish truly fantastic.

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Allow to cool while you toast some bread – we had green chile cheddar bagels –  and serve, dipping your bread into the nice, gooey egg yolk as you go. So delicious and quintessentially Spanish. ¡Olé!

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A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I realize I am late to the party with this book, but seriously, I only “discovered” A Discovery of Witches, and forgive my cheesy-ass pun, when the Sundance Channel started airing the previews for the TV series based on the book trilogy. The series looked so well-made that I had to read the book and find out what all the hype was about.

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I’ll be honest and say off the top that no one does witches and vampires better than Anne Rice. They simply don’t. The woman has taken lush, lyrical, sometimes purple prose to new heights of sensuality when describing the taste of blood, the sensation of magic affecting the world around us, the scent of skin and flesh, the feeling of luxury in the smallest of details. So I went in fully not expecting anything similar to hers, but still hoping for a good read. And I wasn’t disappointed, though it was a different experience than what I’d expected.

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Matthew Clairmont is a vampire and Diana Bishop is a witch, in this fascinating universe of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons. They are both scholars in Oxford, Matthew a geneticist and medical doctor, and Diana a PhD-carrying professor of ancient alchemical texts. They meet in a library when Diana, whose witch talents have been “bound” since childhood, inadvertently unearths the magical tome Ashmole 782, an ancient book of magic that purportedly gives the secrets of how vampires, witches and daemons came into being and how any of these magical races might destroy the other and rule the world.

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Slightly melodramatic, yes. Of course, they have an instant attraction to one another, and of course they end up falling in love. The trajectory of their romance isn’t what you’d expect, though, since vampires, witches and daemons are forbidden from “fraternizing,” and they don’t consummate their love, at least not in this book. There are two more after this book, so hopefully they get some action in one of those. 😉

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Harkness writes with an unusual mix of historical reverence and modern sensibility, having her characters be these magical creatures with godlike powers, eternal life, and incredible talents…….and they do yoga. No, seriously. I about died laughing in the beginning of the book when Matthew courts Diana by taking her to a yoga class. Nothing against yoga here, but just the thought of a centuries-old blood drinker twisting himself into a downward-facing dog position gave me the giggles. Anyway, I digress.

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I do have to say that I didn’t much like the character of Matthew, quite honestly. I get that vampires, in this literary universe, are protective of those they love, and at heart, are predators so they consider the chase and the hunt an elemental part of any interaction and relationship. That, combined with being centuries old and being essentially a bossy, old-fashioned man who thinks he knows everything, make him a jerk. Pardon my crudeness, but yes, Matthew Clairmont is sort of a dick. He grew on me eventually, but I still think he’s an arrogant ass at times.

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There are some superb food references in this book, for being in the culinary repertoire of an ancient vampire who doesn’t even ingest food, at least, not much food. Matthew invites Diana to dinner at his elegant home when they are starting to fall in love, though ostensibly he is only inviting her to protect her from the other witches, vampires and daemons who have also sensed that the magical Ashmole has been unearthed and want to get their claws on it. But we all know Matthew has more on his mind than a book.

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The next course was a stew, with chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce. My first bite told me it was veal, fixed with apples and a bit of cream, served atop rice. Matthew watched me eat……..”it’s an old recipe from Normandy,” he said. “Do you like it?” “It’s wonderful,” I said. “Did you make it?”

I know the book specifies that Matthew makes Diana an old French-style veal stew with apples, but I can’t really stomach veal these days, so in honor of the fact of Matthew’s essential Frenchness, I opted instead for a beef stew with Dijon mustard and brandy. Can you get more Gallic than Dijon and brandy? 🙂

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INGREDIENTS
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 shallots, chopped
4 tablespoons butter, as needed
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 tablespoons flour
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup brandy
4 cups beef stock, preferably unsalted as the Dijon has quite a lot of salt
1/2 cup stoneground mustard
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small chunks
1/2 pound mushrooms, stemmed, cleaned and quartered
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven and add the shallots, with a sprinkle of sea salt over them. Cook until softened but not browned, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Add the butter to the oil in the pan.

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Add the flour, salt and pepper to a large plastic bag, then put in the beef cubes to coat. Shake off excess flour with tongs, and place half the cubes in the pan.

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Cook over medium-high heat until well browned and crusty on all sides, then put into the bowl with the shallots. Repeat with the remaining beef cubes.

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Add the brandy to the empty pan, and cook, stirring, until the bottom is deglazed and any crusted-on bits come loose.

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Pour in the beef stock, the Dijon mustard and the stoneground mustard. Whisk to blend, then return meat and onion mixture to pan. Lower heat, cover pan partway, and simmer gently until meat is very tender, about 1 and 1/2 hours.

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Add carrots, and continue simmering for 40 minutes, or until slices are tender.

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The last 15 minutes of cook time, add the mushrooms and the red wine to the bubbling, fragrant stew. Simmer another 5 minutes, taste for seasoning, and serve with butter noodles and red wine to drink.

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So good and richly flavored! The mustard and brandy really complement one another, and perfectly tenderize the beef. No doubt a vampire would approve. I know we loved it so much we ate it all up before I could take the requisite “food and book” photo, so yet another shot of the luscious stew will have to suffice.

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A Roman Tale by Carroll Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hey, a little smut never hurt anyone!

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

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

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

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

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INGREDIENTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grate over some fresh Parmesan cheese.

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

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

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The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

The Last Supper, that immortal painting by the equally 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 can be in the form of a soup, but 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. A traditional panzanella salad is delicious anytime of the year, and is also an excellent way to use up any bread or tomatoes you have lying around.

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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 lunch, but don’t forget the wine. Jesus would never forgive you, nor would Father Leyre.

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“Tell Me a Story” Podcast Interview about Food in Books

Hey, check out my interview with the wonderful Annette Rochelle Aben on her podcast!  Tell Me a Story

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The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos

Reading this book and getting to know the main character of Cesar Castillo in The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love was both a joy and a sadness. This is a man with a great lust for life, dancing and drinking and eating and womanizing…….and with a talent for making decisions based on instinct and as oftentimes as not, ending up in worse circumstances.

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The trajectory of Cesar’s life is told in this book. He is a musician who comes from Cuba with his younger brother Nestor, both of them determined to make a name for themselves in the musical world of mambo in 1950s New York City. Nestor is a dreamer, sensitive and still in love with Maria back in Cuba, for whom he writes the song that will launch he and his brother into a semblance of success, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” While the title references both brothers, however, the book is truly Cesar’s tale of joy, woe, happiness, pain, and ultimately, calm satisfaction with his life. It really is the story of any man, of Everyman.

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Cesar is bigger than life, with appetites to match. He is the businessman, the driving force of the two brothers, yet – spoiler alert – when Nestor dies, a part of Cesar goes with him……..which all of us who have loved and lost someone can well relate to. There were times, though, when his life went from bad to worse, when his boozing and whoring made him into such a sad pathetic jerk, that I threw the book down in disgust. But I picked it up and continued reading, because his character is so fascinating, so resilient and ultimately, so filled with the joy of life.

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There’s a sense of wonder in this book that conveys Cesar’s mindset so well. You can understand why he continues to make the same mistakes over and over, yet still find something new and precious in his life. He is such a strong, tough, macho man, sensual, able to turn the world a bit on its axis toward him, and yet has those colossal weaknesses that bring him back down to earth.

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One passage in particular stood out to me. It’s just after they have appeared on the I Love Lucy show with Desi Arnaz, who becomes somewhat of a patron to them, and their Irish neighbor Mrs. Shannon comes to congratulate them and to goggle at Cesar, for whom she has a huge crush.

“She followed Cesar down the hallway…..through the kitchen into the dining room: they had a long table still set with platters of bacalao – codfish cooked with garlic – black beans, rice, a huge salad, pork chops and steaks from the plant, and a big bowl of yuca.”

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Yuca, a quintessential Cuban food, is also one of the simplest and tastiest things to cook. It’s a root vegetable, kind of like a potato or turnip but with more flavor. I cooked them still frozen, in chicken broth mixed with lemon juice and a chicken broth cube, about 30 minutes, to thaw, then added some olive oil and simmered on low another half hour to cook through. They do have a woody center that’s inedible so take that out before you eat. The pan juices, reduced, make a lovely sauce. Add salt if needed. The Cuban-style black beans were easy – I cheated and used canned black beans, and mixed them with gently sauteed onion, garlic, green pepper, salt and cider vinegar, mashing them to thicken.

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However, it was the bacalao that was the star of the show, based on this great recipe from La Cocina de Nathan. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
1 lb salt-cured bacalao

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2 eggs
2 cups of all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons of baking soda
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
6-7 cloves of garlic, either mashed into a paste or as finely grated as possible

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1.5 cups of water
Freshly ground black pepper

METHOD
Soak your bacalao overnight, changing the water every 2-3 hours. This is to drain the salt and also reconstitute the fish, kind of like what you do with dried porcini. Refrigerate the rinsed, drained and desalted cod until ready to use.

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Let bacalao come to room temperature. Peel the fish meat off the skin, taking out all the bones and scales. Flake with your hands, though initially you may need to use a sharp knife until the meat begins to break down.

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In a separate bowl, mix the flour and the baking soda together and whisk to evenly combine. Add the eggs to the flour and baking soda and whisk again. It will be a fairly crumbly mix, which is what you want at this point.

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Start gradually incorporating the water, until you have a thick, batterlike consistency. Add the chopped parsley and the mashed garlic and mix again.

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Then add your bacalao pieces, and stir well to mix. Cover and refrigerate for 1-2 hours. Ideally you should refrigerate overnight. But in this case, hell no. I was hungry!

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Heat grapeseed oil in a large pan. When smoking hot, drop in spoonfuls of the bacalao batter. Don’t crowd the pan, as too many cooking at once will drop the oil temperature, which is what makes fried food greasy.

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Cook 3-4 minutes per side, or until golden brown. Remove to a paper towel to drain.

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Serve beautifully with the black beans and the garlic-flavored yuca, and of course, some wine.

“In the name of the mambo, and the rumba, and the cha-cha-cha.”

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

One of my Christmas gifts, this book is one of the most compelling that I’ve read in ages. I’m a terrible literary snob, as I’m sure is no surprise to anyone who follows my blog, and I am very picky about what I read. So when I am compelled by a book, for me I know it’s a keeper. Once Upon a River combines the sensation of a fairy tale with the scientific sensibilities of the late Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and advances in science and technology were nearly daily occurrences. The titular river is based on the Thames, but it’s not quite the same Thames River nor is the timeframe ever truly specified. The feeling is one of magical realism, and though I have previously said that only the Latin American writers can truly do magical realism well, I have to slightly alter my opinion on this and include Diane Setterfield in that category.

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The river flows past a pub in which the regulars gather to drink and tell stories, either fables from long ago, made-up tales about goings-on in their own midst, or more rarely, about Quietly, the mythical riverboat man who helps those who are in danger of drowning and, in true Charon-like fashion, takes those whose time it is to the other side. Very Greek mythology, River Styx symbolism. A stranger stumbles in one night covered in blood and carrying a little girl in his arms. The village nurse, Rita, knows she is dead, so when the little girl comes back to life, you know a mystery is afoot. But who is the child? Is she the long-lost daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Or is she the granddaughter of the multiracial farmer Armstrong? Or possibly the sister of Lily White, who vanished mysteriously and whose disappearance is the framework of Lily’s story itself.

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It’s difficult to describe this book, because it’s so unique. The lyricism of the prose is the standout quality of the book, yet the mystery of who the girl truly is, combined with the interwoven stories of all the village inhabitants and how they have all ended up where they are, is just as fascinating. I loved Rita’s character, but I love strong women so of course she was my favorite. A trained nurse with an intense knowledge of medical matters, she applies her intellect and reason to all things to try and figure them out. It is she who attempts to solve the mystery of the girl from the river.

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The child is herself a mystery, as she never speaks, obsessively watches the river and seems to be longing for her father. She takes on qualities of all three missing little girls, and at times, seems to be all of them and none of them. A true enigma, her coming seems to also usher in a time of miracles and mysteries. A longtime bachelor of the village, Mr. Albright, is suddenly compelled to propose to his longtime housekeeper/mistress and their summertime wedding is one of the most charmingly described scenes in the book, though the mystery of the girl continues to be a hot topic.

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After the speeches, talk of the girl was renewed. Events that had taken place on this very riverbank, in the dark and in the cold, were retold under an azure sky, and perhaps it was an effect of the sunshine, but the darker elements of the tale were swept away and a simple, happier narrative came to the fore…….The cider cups were refilled, the little Margots came one after the other and indistinguishably with plates of ham and cheese and radishes, and the wedding party had enough joy to drown out all doubt……Mr. Albright kissed Mrs. Albright, who blushed red as the radishes, and at noon precisely the party rose as one to continue celebrations by joining the fair.

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Radishes and cheese sounded like an oddly good combination, so I did a little research and found these delicious cheddar-radish-carrot scones at the Fiction Kitchen Podcast, which is one of my absolute favorites and who I keep hoping will want to collaborate with me someday. If you know anyone over at Fiction Kitchen podcast, put in a good word for yours truly, ok? Anyway, my method is based on their wonderful scones that were actually inspired by the Peter Rabbit series of books, but of course I added in my own flavoring tweaks.

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INGREDIENTS
12 baby carrots
12 radishes
4-5 tablespoons garlic powder
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 and 1/4 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 tablespoons dried onion
3-4 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 stick (or 8 tablespoons) butter, chilled and cut into cubes
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 egg
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F and wash and slice the carrots and radishes. Lay them on a baking tray, sprinkle over the garlic powder and the olive oil, and roast for 20 minutes. Set aside to cool.

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In a bowl, mix together the flour, the baking powder, the sea salt, the dried onion, and the black pepper.

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In your most awesome red Kitchen Aid, with the pastry hook attachment, mix the dry ingredients together with the butter cubes, a few at a time, until a crumbly dough forms.

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Combine the heavy cream and the egg together with a whisk.

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In a food chopper, finely mince the radishes and carrots.

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Mix together the shredded cheeses with the vegetables, then pour over the cream-egg mixture. Stir well to combine.

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A spoonful at a time, add this to the dry ingredients, and mix together at a medium speed until a sticky ball of dough forms.

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Put the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour.

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Cover a flat surface with flour, and roll out the dough. It is fairly sticky, so flour your rolling pin as well.

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Cut out round shapes with a biscuit cutter and lay them on a lined baking tray. Sprinkle over a little shredded cheddar on top of each scone, then bake for 20 minutes and allow to cool.

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Oh my, I wasn’t expecting them to be quite as tasty as they were, and although mine didn’t rise (I probably need some newer baking powder), the cheesy flavor combined with the roasted savoriness of the radish and carrot gave it a wonderful flavor! Excellent with a nice bowl of soup on a cold day, or even as breakfast! Thanks, Food Fiction Podcast, for the inspiration!

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The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle

I have to say I’m a bit peeved by this book. The Dinner List has a totally fascinating premise that takes that old idea of picking five people you’d want to have dinner with, whether living or dead, and runs with it………..and then, sadly, totally drops the ball. The main character, Sabrina, is having her 30th birthday dinner with her best friend, when unexpectedly, five people show up, including the late, great Audrey Hepburn.

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Yes, Audrey is a guest at this dinner party. Turns out that Sabrina was named after the iconic, eponymous character from Audrey’s film also starring Humphrey Bogart. The other guests are people who Sabrina hasn’t seen for years and all of whom have had a significant impact on her life. Her long-lost father shows up, an influential professor from her college days, and Tobias, who is presented as her ex with whom she lived for many years. So yes, the premise is fascinating and had so much potential to be a wonderful book about our life influences, who we would like to see and talk to, the meaning of life, etc. But irritatingly, it ends up being a treatise on getting over one’s first love. In other words, it’s chick-lit and we all know how I feel about chick-lit. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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It turns out Tobias and Sabrina have split up and she is still trying to come to terms with their breakup. They’ve had a typical long-term relationship – meeting in college, becoming involved, breaking up and reuniting, blah blah blah. Literally nothing in their relationship was unique. They were like any other couple. I think what gradually began to wear on me was the fact that this book has one of the most fascinating literary devices I’ve read about in ages – the dinner party with five people of your choice from history or from real life who can be either living or dead – and uses it as the backdrop for what ends up being a rather pedestrian and boring love story.  (sigh) And of course, the great shocker, the major “wow” moment of the book is something that I had figured out from Chapter 2.  SPOILER ALERT: Tobias is already dead and that’s why she has to get over him and that’s why he showed up to this dinner party.

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Well hell, no one could have seen that one coming. (As I roll my eyes in exasperation.) I mean, come on. If you could pick any five people from anytime in history to break bread with, wouldn’t you, firstly, choose people with whom you could have conversations about the meaning of life, etc? Don’t you think you’d want to talk about their lives, their impact on the world? My five dinner party guests would include Jesus of Nazareth, Cleopatra, Johannes Gutenberg, Barack Obama and Miguel de Cervantes, and I promise you that we wouldn’t spend a moment talking about our love lives. So therein lies the root of my annoyance. I hate to waste valuable time reading a book that ends up being so completely different from what I supposed it to be. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nicely written and again, the premise had so much potential. But the final execution was just……simplistic, pedestrian. Meh. However, the redeeming feature of the book are the food passages, like this one.

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The waiter comes over for the second time and I just jump in. “I’ll have the friseé salad and the risotto,” I say. I send Conrad a look. He nods. “The scallops,” he says. And some of those aphrodisiacs.” The waiter looks confused. He opens his mouth and closes it again. “Oysters,” Audrey clarifies wearily. “I’ll have the same, with the friseé salad.”

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Doesn’t risotto with seafood sound DIVINE? I chose to use shrimp with mine, based on this recipe from The Proud Italian Cook blog.

INGREDIENTS
1 large butternut squash
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 carrot, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 celery rib, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup good quality white wine
4 cups homemade stock. I used my precious last jar of turkey stock from Thanksgiving.
6-7 sage leaves
1 lb raw shrimp, thawed, deveined and shelled
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Peel, seed and cube the butternut squash, and roast at 425F for 20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

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Heat the stock in a large saucepot until simmering, then lower the heat so it stays hot but isn’t boiling.

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Heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet, and sauté the carrot, shallot, celery and garlic for about 10 minutes, until fragrant. Sprinkle over some salt at the beginning of cooking.

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Add the Arborio rice to the cooked vegetables, stir together so that the oil and vegetables coat the rice and the rice toasts a bit (called la tostatura) but don’t let the rice burn. Stir for about 5 minutes.

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Splash in the half-cup of white wine and stir again.

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Add in one ladleful of hot stock to the rice and stir until the liquid absorbs. Plan on this part of the process taking about 20-30 minutes so be patient and have your own glass of wine nearby. Keep adding one ladleful of stock at a time and stirring until the liquid absorbs, before adding more. It’s really rather Zen to do, calming and soothing.

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After about half an hour, the rice should have absorbed all the liquid and cooked to a fluffy yet al dente (to the tooth) consistency, meaning it should still have a bit of bite in texture. Add in the butternut squash and stir together to mix.

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In a hot stovetop grill pan, cook the shrimp about 2 minutes per side, until pink and cooked through.

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Add to the rice and squash mixture, and toss over some finely chopped fresh sage. Salt and pepper to taste, and apply to your face. DIVINE!

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