The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

Special thanks to RP for the photography and kitchen assistance.

Having minored in art history in college, I always fall in love with books that tell stories about painters and their inspiration for famous works. I previously blogged about Girl with a Pearl Earring, which tells the story of Vermeer’s masterpiece. In The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, the painter herself is the enigma. Is the titular painting autobiographical? What is it supposed to mean? Most importantly, and a key element of this book, which of the two titular works is real? And if both of them exist and tell the same story and share the same heart, does it matter?

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Told in three different timelines, it is the story of the painter Sara de Vos, and her “most famous” painting in 17th century Amsterdam during the famous tulip mania that gripped that country in the 1600s; Ellie the young forger who recreates it for reasons of her own in 1950s New York City; and Marty, the owner of the painting in modern-day New York City with his own complicated past.

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Grief is the persistent thread running throughout this book. Sara de Vos mourns the loss of her young daughter and the abandonment by her husband; Ellie mourning lost opportunities and her own complicity in forgery; Marty mourning a lost wife, a life that never was, and punishment of the young Ellie’s transgression into his life and art. Sara’s grief is particularly poignant, though she is later hired in the household of Cornelis Groen and slowly begins to reclaim her life, her heart, and most importantly, her art, with the quiet courtship of Tomas, Cornelis’ manservant.

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They head out of the grounds toward the back country in an open wagon, Tomas on the box seat and Cornelis and Sara in the rear………..also bundled along in the wicker baskets Mrs. Streek has prepared. Bread rolls, Leiden cheese studded with cumin seeds, strawberries with sour cream, marzipan, and wine spiced with cinnamon and cloves.

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Strawberries and cheese have to be two of my most favorite foods in all the world. I’d never tried Leyden cheese but it sounded unusual, so found some on Amazon.com. Hurray Amazon Prime 2-day shipping! The idea of making a Dutch-style grilled cheese sandwich occurred to me, and pairing the cumin-seeded Leyden cheese with caramelized onions and tomato was a creative twist. And of course, strawberries in sour cream, with a touch of brown sugar, has to be one of the most heavenly things to eat on earth.

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These are the methods that worked for me, based on childhood memories of strawberries and cream and sugar, and a lifelong love of grilled cheese.

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INGREDIENTS
1 dozen ripe strawberries
1 small container of sour cream
Zest and juice of one clementine
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 tablespoon almond extract
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon of butter
1 large bread roll, cut in half
6-7 thick slices of Leyden cheese
1 spoonful of caramelized onions (see my method for caramelized onions here)
1 tomato, thinly sliced

METHOD
Wash and let dry the strawberries, leaving their stems intact.

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In a small bowl, mix the sour cream, the zest and juice of the clementine, the vanilla, and the almond extract. Taste for additional flavoring. In another small bowl, put the brown sugar and the cinnamon.

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Dip the strawberries first in the sour cream mixture, then roll in the brown sugar and cinnamon.

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Slice the cumin-studded Leyden cheese into thick slices. It was nice to have a strong pair of hands do this for me, as this cheese is quite thick and firm.

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Add more butter to the skillet and melt it. Lay two bread halves in the hot, melted butter and layer the cheese slices generously on each piece of bread, to begin melting.

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Lay the tomato slices and onion mixture generously on the other bread halves.

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Lay the onion-tomato laden bread on top of the cheese-covered bread in the skillet. Cook over medium-low heat for about 10-12 minutes, flipping the sandwich occasionally so both sides cook evenly and don’t burn.

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Serve on a platter with the strawberries, and admire your Dutch still life food work of art before devouring.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Thanks to AL for the photography.

Don’t you love a story told from an unexpected viewpoint, or from a character who has traditionally been portrayed in a certain way? It gives a much-needed shift in perspective, I think. Seeing things in only one way is both boring and limiting. It’s good to expand your worldview to look at something you always viewed in a specific manner, in a different way.

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Girl with a Pearl Earring is the story of a young woman in 16th century Holland, named Griet. She is ordinary, quiet, of a poor family of famous Delft tile makers, who lives a regular life. Her internal life, however, is another matter. She has the imagination and dreams of an artist and a philosopher, though she has never gone to school. Early in the story, she is taken into the household of the famous painter Vermeer to be an assistant housekeeper, and eventually Vermeer sees that she is different. He asks her to become his painting assistant, and then one of his painting subjects. The feelings between them develop, though they are never spoken.

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The overall feel of this book is reminiscent of the works of Vermeer himself – muted, subtle, calm, but with passion and emotion right beneath the surface. Just as Vermeer’s women always seem to be lost in their own thoughts as they go about pouring milk, trying on pearls, admiring themselves in mirrors, or looking out at the viewer as though inviting them into their world, so is this book a small window into another world. When Vermeer decides to paint Griet as his Girl With A Pearl Earring , all sorts of hell breaks loose – in his house, with his wife, with her family, with the other man who loves her. Oh, love…..the joy and agony it brings, often at the same time.

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The Girl with a Pearl Earring – the painting – has been analyzed endlessly. Her look of invitation – or is it fear? The exotic style of headdress she wears – is she from another country? The beauty of this painting is that it can mean anything you want. She can be a saint, a whore, a queen, a concubine, a servant. Women have been viewed by society in this black-and-white way since the beginning of time, which doesn’t take into consideration that all women have the saint and the sinner in them. The world seems to demand that we be one or the other. So silly, because all women have that capacity to be both angel and devil.

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Stories about women in history fascinate me, because there are so many tales untold. I think about all the dreams and hopes and fears of women throughout time, and wonder how it must have been to live in a certain place or era, and have to do what was expected of a woman in a certain historical time. I feel lucky to live in the time that I do as a woman, with the freedoms of choice we have, the ability to earn our own living and not be dependent upon anyone, to choose to marry or not marry, the privilege and the right to be independent. I hope it will always be so.

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In the opening passage, Vermeer and his wife Catharina come to Griet’s home to see her housekeeping skills. Griet is cooking, assembling ingredients for vegetable soup.

“What have you been doing here, Griet?” he asked. I was surprised by the question but knew enough to hide it. “Chopping vegetables, sir. For the soup.” I always laid vegetables out in a circle, each with its own section like a slice of pie. There were five slices: red cabbage, onions, leeks, carrots, and turnips. I had used a knife edge to shape each slice, and placed a carrot disc in the center.

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Later in the book, Griet becomes friendly with the butcher’s son, Pieter, who begins to give her parents gifts of beef as he courts their daughter. With the reference to pie in the book passage above, along with all the vegetables, I decided a hearty beef and vegetable pot pie was in order.

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This is the method that worked for me, loosely based on this one from The Food Network, but with my additions of peas, parsley, butternut squash, and herbs. The pie crust I made from scratch using my badass Kitchen Aid.

INGREDIENTS
2 lbs boneless beef chuck, cut into cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup sliced mushrooms, any variety
1 red onion, finely diced
7 baby carrots, cut into circles
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely diced

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1 rib of celery, finely diced
Handful of fresh parsley, roughly chopped
Half a butternut squash, cut into small cubes
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 cup red wine
1 cup beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato bouillon
2-3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
1 cup frozen peas
1 teaspoon smoked paprika

METHOD
In a large Dutch oven or other stovetop pot that can also go in the oven, saute the beef cubes in the olive oil, after seasoning them with salt and pepper. At this stage, heat the oven to 365 F.

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Remove beef to a plate, and set aside.

Whisk in a tablespoon of flour to the pan juices, add about 2 tablespoons of beef broth and a tablespoon of wine. Mix together, adding a bit more flour, wine and broth, until you get a roux. Keep stirring, to get rid of that floury taste. Then add the tomato bouillon cube.

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When you have a thickened roux, add the Worchestershire sauce and the rest of the beef broth. I was fortunate to have my dear friend Angela, who is one of the most phenomenal cooks I know, cook along with me today and she brought some of her homemade beef stock. Yum!

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Add to the pan the diced celery, carrots, mushrooms, onions, butternut squash, garlic and parsley. Saute the vegetables over medium-low heat for about 7 minutes, until they have cooked and started to soften. If brown bits have accumulated at the bottom, stir those in as they will add to the flavor.

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Put the beef back into this lovely-scented mixture, and bring to a low simmer. Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper if needed. Cover, and cook in the now-hot oven for about an hour. Check for texture after 60 minutes, and cook a bit longer if the meat is not cooked to your liking.

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Increase oven to 400F degrees. Remove the pan and check the meat texture. Add 1/4 cup of broth and 1/4 cup wine, and stir to re-amalgamate. Add the peas and the paprika. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

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Roll out the homemade crust and press it over the top of the Dutch oven, using that as your pie pan. There wasn’t quite enough dough to cover the pan top, so I used it as a topping cover inside the pan. We do what we have to.

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Cut small slits in the top of the pie crust, and return to the oven for another 30 minutes, or until the crust has set and become golden-brown, and the juices start to bubble out. Delish!

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Serve and eat with relish on a chilly evening. So good, and comforting, too.

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