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 Unburied by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser is my favorite author after Umberto Eco, writing as he does in the most lucid, erudite, intellectual and bawdy style that sucks you into the vivid, dirty, and virulent world of Victorian, post-Industrial England. His settings are the traditional British country house or vicarage, manor or townhouse, and his Dickensian-named characters show off the best and worst qualities of humanity. For all their quiet, tea-drinking mannerisms and genteel ways of speaking, these characters are among the most inept, foolish, clueless, stupid, venal and cruelly malign in modern literature.

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In Palliser’s twist on the traditional Christmas ghost story, The Unburied, Dr. Edward Courtine comes to the small British town of Thurchester to see his old school “friend” Austin Fickling for Christmas, and to see the town’s historic church and related records. Of course, being a church, there is a ghost. And a historical mystery. And then a murder, which happens moments after Edward and Austin visit the victim. How it all turns and twists together creates a memorable murder mystery/ghost story/ Christmas tale that will make you view the holiday season in a less-than-thrilled light.

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It is very much written in an academia tone, but it moves at the pace of a whirlwind, so anyone who enjoys British literature, the books of Charles Dickens, or even history, will enjoy this book. The sense of menace creeps up on you very subtly, and there are occasions when you – ok, when I – found myself snapping at Edward’s stupidity. “Hello, the answer is RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU!!!!” I caught myself shouting before I pulled it together and reminded myself it’s just a book.

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In an early scene, Edward dines with Austin, with whom he is staying, in a horrible, freezing cold old house that is where the mystery kicks off. Austin is acting quite passively-aggressively nasty to Edward as he prepares their meal of chops and onions……not well, I would add.

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“After your long journey,” he went on, “I thought you’d like to stay in tonight, and I’ll cook our supper.”  “As you did in the old days,” I exclaimed. “Do you not recall? When we lodged at Sidney Street, we used to take turns to grill chops?”…………. Austin nodded. “Do you remember your ‘chops St. Lawrence’ as you called them? Burnt to a crisp like the poor saint.”

Pork chops with caramelized onions in a mustard-cream sauce seemed just the ticket on this chilly night, plus they are simple to make and best of all, delicious. This is the method that worked for me, based on my own recipe.

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INGREDIENTS
4 pork chops, bone out, 1/2 inch thick each
Salt and pepper to taste
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup grain Dijon mustard
4 red onions, sliced into rings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup red wine

METHOD

Heat the oven to 400F.

Start with the onions. Put the olive oil and butter into a nonstick skillet and melt. Add the onions, and stir so all is glossy and covered. Sprinkle over the sugar, then let the onions cook slowly and brown underneath, stirring occasionally. This will probably take you a good 45 minutes, if not longer.

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At the 30-minute mark, pour in the red wine. Continue stirring and cooking.

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At the end of the cooking, you will have a pile of deliciously warm, brown-tinted caramelized onions that are sweet and have a marvelous soft texture.

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In the same pan heated to medium-high, add the pork chops, and season with salt and pepper. Sear each side for 5 minutes, then put the cast-iron pan with the chops into the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, let the chops rest, and put the pan back on the stove over a medium burner.

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Add the grain Dijon mustard and stir around. Then pour in the heavy cream and let it thicken and cook. Don’t let it curdle.

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To be quintessentially British, serve the sizzling hot chops with the Dijon-cream sauce poured over, the onions piled glossily on one side, and some classic mushy peas on the other. Sooooooo good and easy, too!

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