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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The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

To say this book is my ultimate favorite is an understatement. I first read it in my 20s and was enthralled at the mixture of philosophy, medieval history, and the detective story at the heart of The Name of the Rose. Much like the labyrinth library navigated by Brother William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, the two main characters, the tale twists and turns upon itself and wends off into unexpected directions, dark corners and the occasional literary “red herring.” It takes a truly talented writer to make a 500+ novel about medieval monks, and didactic history of the medieval Catholic Church, into something compulsively readable.

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The author, Umberto Eco, died on Feb. 19, 2016, and left a huge void in the academic and literary worlds. It felt like a personal loss as well, hearing of his passing and realizing his witty prose and semiotic thought process are now gone from this world. If a writer can make a reader question her worldview and analyze things around her that she normally wouldn’t even think of, Eco has done that in my life with this book. A book about books, about libraries, about labyrinths and puzzles, about the history of the Catholic Church, and about the qualities of human nature that do not change over time. Love, desire, betrayal, greed, and that attitude of imposing your beliefs onto the world weave like fine golden strands throughout the pages of this book.

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This gem of a novel was the inspiration for my (still unfinished) graduate thesis – a semiotic analysis of The Name of The Rose itself. It was, I thought, a clever turning of Eco’s philosophy back onto him, but it turns out I bit off way more than I could chew. Never take on the master unless you know you can beat him. I could never hope to come close to Eco, but I wrote 90% of the thesis as a love letter to his philosophy. It remains incomplete, but occasionally I add to it in my head. I’m no academic, but perhaps one day I will go back and write the damn thesis in honor of Eco and my love for this amazing book. Or maybe I’ll just cook in Eco’s honor, instead.

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One of the more colorful characters is the monk Salvatore, a porcine-featured man who speaks a polyglot of tongues and languages, a linguistic mish-mash of Spanish, Latin, French, Italian and who knows what else. The result is a bizarrely entertaining vernacular of his own. The passage where he offers to make fried cheese for Adso and Brother William exemplifies this.

I put an end to his talk and told him that this evening my master wanted to read certain books in his cell and wished to eat up there. “I will do,” he said. “I will do cheese in batter.” “How is that made?” “Facilis. You take the cheese before it is too antiquum, without too much salis, and cut into cubes or sicut you like. And postea you put a bit of butierro or lardo to rechauffer over the embers. And in it you put two pieces of cheese, and when it becomes tenero, zucharum et cinnamon supra positurum du bis. And immediately take to table because it must be ate caldo caldo.”

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If you have any understanding of basic English and the romance languages of Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Catalan or Romanian, you can completely understand what he is saying. I’ve always found the language of Salvatore a charming example of Eco’s facility with languages and symbolism.

Now, I don’t know about you, but eating melted cheese with sugar and cinnamon doesn’t exactly make my taste buds go “yippee!” So I poked around my kitchen and came up with this version, which is based on the luscious-sounding mozzarella in carozza recipe detailed by Luca Marchiori on his heavenly blog Chestnuts and Truffles.I did, obviously, omit the bread, but the idea is the same – cheese dusted in flour and fried – cheese in batter! As Luca is Italian himself, and this recipe is in honor of his fellow countryman, I thought it quite fitting to tweak it and cook it here. Grazie, Luca!

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This is the method that worked for me.

Ingredients

1 egg, room temperature
2 tablespoonfuls of flour
1 tablespoon Italian breadcrumbs
1-2 teaspoons ground thyme
1-2 teaspoons garlic powder
Mozzarella cheese
Camembert cheese
Parmesan cheese
Olive oil for frying

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Method

Crack your egg into a ramekin. Add your flour and breadcrumbs into another ramekin. Add the thyme and garlic powder into another large bowl, then start chopping up your cheeses into small pieces.

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Mix the cheeses and herbs together with your hands, and roll into small balls. Yes, I said balls.

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Return your happy little cheese balls to the bowl, and refrigerate for about 30-45 minutes.

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Add olive oil to a large, shallow pan and heat until the oil is shimmering.

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Dip the cheese balls into the beaten egg, then into the flour and breadcrumb mixture, then add it to the hot oil in the pan. Yes, I’m a sloppy cook and I don’t care.

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Add 3 or 4 flour-dusted cheese balls and fry until brown on one side, then flip and fry on the other side until browned. Don’t cook more than 4 minutes on either side, because the cheese will start melting out of the flour and egg.

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Dab off the excess olive oil and nosh away. Nom nom nom!

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“Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.”