Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

I went into this book expecting a nice, escapist type of read as I recovered from minor outpatient surgery this past weekend. It was recommended by two friends of mine as a book filled with art and food and set in France, and both of them were sure I’d love it. I minored in Art History and of course, I am a foodie par excellence and love travel, so I gave it a whirl. When you’re recuperating from any medical procedure, minor or major, you don’t really want anything too heavy or deep.

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(sigh) That being said, Lisette’s List was boring. I’m sorry, I hate to slam on books and writers because God knows, I am not an author. The author of this book, Susan Vreeland, had previously written a wonderful novel called Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which told the story of a Dutch painting and its owners starting in modern times and going back through when it was painted, in a series of interconnected short tales. It was beautifully written and moved along brilliantly. This book? Not so much.

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The basic premise is a young woman, Lisette, who moves with her husband Andre, to a small town in Provence to help care for Andre’s ailing grandfather Pascal in the late 1930s. Pascal, before he dies, gradually teaches Lisette about painting and colors and life. Sounds nice, right? It’s not. Dull. Andre goes off to fight the Nazis and of course, dies. Before he went off to fight, he hid away some family paintings worth millions. The rest of book is the tale of Lisette moving away from Provence, following her “list” that she had put together with Pascal of all the things she wanted to do with her life, including finding those family paintings before the Nazis get their nasty little hands on them.

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The book had a lot of promise, and the basic premise could have been done so much better. And of course, the lavish descriptions of rural French country towns, the art itself and the luscious food so typical of Provence and southern France were really the redeeming parts of the book. But the main character, Lisette, doesn’t ever really develop much as a character and in fact, makes some decisions which are downright annoyingly stupid. I mean, if you’re savvy enough to go off on your own throughout southern France in search of valuable family paintings, you’re surely smart enough to figure out who is your enemy. Anyhoo…..

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Like I said, the food descriptions were wonderful and in some cases, mouth-watering. There were any number of food passages I could have reenacted, but this particular dish sounded both intriguing and perfect for the current late summer bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes that are on jewel-like, glowing display at every grower’s market. I was lucky enough to have purchased a large bag of organic heirlooms last week and decided to put them to delicious use.

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Soon, Odette’s daughter, Sandrine, whose brother Michel, would come home someday, and Madame Pinatel, the mayor’s wife, came to pay their respects. Then Melanie brought two jars of canned cherries from their trees and a bag of raisins. Aloys Biron, the butcher, brought a large salami. Most unexpectedly, Madame Bonnelly, a stout woman with thick arms whom I had never met, brought a gratin d’aubergines, an eggplant-and-tomato pie garnished with breadcrumbs.

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I have a love-hate relationship with eggplant, but the idea of a tomato pie sounded luscious, so I did a little culinary research and came up with this method which is a combination of Elise Bauer’s recipe from Simply Recipes and a long-remembered recipe from Southern Living I read about a few years ago.

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INGREDIENTS:
1 and 1/4 cups unbleached flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick (8 tablespoons) cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
4 tablespoons ice-cold water
1 pound heirloom tomatoes, preferably fresh and organic
4 cloves garlic
1 shallot
1 cup of mixed shredded cheeses. I used sharp cheddar, pepperjack and Gruyere
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup Greek yogurt
1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

METHOD:
For the piecrust:

Combine the flour with a teaspoon of salt, and gradually mix in the butter one small cube at a time. Add the water a bit at a time until the dough comes together in your Kitchen Aid and forms a ball. Wrap in plastic and freeze overnight.

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For the filling:

Slice the tomatoes, lie them out on some parchment paper, and sprinkle over salt and garlic powder. Leave to drain overnight.

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Mix together all the cheeses except for the Parmesan, then mince the garlic and add it to the cheese mixture.

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Add in the mayonnaise and the Greek yogurt and stir to mix well.

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Finely mince the  shallot.

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Heat the oven to 350F and roll out your cold piecrust to roughly 12 inches diameter, then press into a pie pan.

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Blind-bake the crust for 15 minutes, remove and prick the bottom of the crust a few times, and bake another 10 minutes. Sprinkle the shallots into the bottom.

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Spoon over the cheese-mayo-yogurt mixture and spread across so that it cover the pie base and shallot-garlic mix.

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Lay the tomatoes in overlapping circles over the cheese mixture, and sprinkle the Parmesan over the top.

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Bake for 30 minutes, or until the Parm is nicely golden brown. Apply to your face.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

It took me awhile to read this book, though it had been recommended by numerous friends and fellow bloggers. There are some seriously good food mentions in this book, which is partly why I read it three times. Also, it’s just an addictive read. The gist of the book is thus: As a teen, Theo loses his mother in a freak accident when the museum they are visiting is bombed. He finds another survivor who indicates he should take the famous painting “The Goldfinch,” which he does.

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Theo’s life goes through various twists and turns as he lives with his friend’s wealthy family, moves with his father and father’s girlfriend Xandra to Las Vegas where he meets the pivotal character and friend Boris – and finds his heart and compassion in rescuing Xandra’s neglected Malti-poo dog Popper – my favorite sub-plot. Ultimately, he returns to New York City and grows up with Hobie, becoming something of a shady art and antique dealer, always hiding the secret of the painting. But like all secrets, it eventually comes out.

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The characters in this book alone make it worth the read. Theo’s dad is a complete and utter loser whom I loathed and despised from day one. Xandra I hated on principle because she neglected her dog until Theo came along. Hobie was the father/friend we all want and whom I fell in love with due to his kind and unworldly heart. Popper the dog worried me so much, so concerned was I for his safety for much of the book, that I actually went online and found a webpage that addressed his safety and assures us readers that Popper lives and indeed, once he is taken under Theo’s wing, thrives. So no worries there. And then, there is Boris, Theo’s best friend from his Las Vegas days who reappears in adulthood and wreaks havoc but also is somewhat of a savior.

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Boris is sort of an anti-hero. You can’t help but like him and feel sorry for him, while at the same time, some of what he does is despicable. But……like all of us, we have our good and our bad sides, our light and our dark, and we are all complex human beings capable of great things and equally terrible things. Perhaps that’s why Boris is so fascinating.

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Manicotti is the meal Theo eats at his first dinner with his jerk father after his mother dies, so although it’s not a happy segment, it’s poignant.

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The food had arrived and I’d poured myself another large but surreptitious glass of champagne before they returned. “Yum!” said Xandra, looking glazed and a bit shiny, tugging her short skirt down, edging around and slithering back into her seat without bothering to pull her massive, bright-red plate of manicotti towards her. “Looks awesome!”

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Cara Nicoletti wrote one of my favorite blogs – Yummy Books – and posted several recipes from “The Goldfinch,” seeming to enjoy it as much as I did and sharing the same ambivalence I had about Boris. I used her version of this dish as my inspiration for today’s recipe, with – of course – a few tweaks of my own. This is the method that worked for me.

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INGREDIENTS
For the marinara sauce:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 baby carrots
1 celery rib
1 red onion
6 cloves of garlic
1 28 oz. can of San Marzano tomatoes
3 whole tomatoes, finely diced
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon each of fresh oregano, rosemary, thyme, and basil
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon
1 tablespoon tomato paste

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For the manicotti filling:
1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, finely diced
5 oz fresh spinach
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup shredded parmesan, divided
1 cup cream cheese, softened
Salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs
10 manicotti shells

METHOD
Make the marinara sauce first, a day ahead if possible. Finely chop the carrot, celery, onion and garlic, and cook for 10 minutes in the olive oil and butter. Add a sprinkle of salt.

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Add the canned tomatoes, the fresh tomatoes, the red wine, the bouillon, the tomato paste, and the fresh herbs. The smell is out of this world good! Stir together again, turn to a low simmer, cover, and cook for up to three hours, stirring occasionally.

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Using  a stick blender, mix the sauce until it is somewhat smooth. Refrigerate overnight.

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Finely dice the shallot and saute with the spinach. Allow to cool.

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Mix the cheeses together, season with salt and pepper, and add the two eggs. Blend well.

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Mix together the cooled spinach with the cheeses, put in a large plastic bag, and and refrigerate for an hour.

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Heat the oven to 350F. Cook the manicotti shells in boiling, salted water for 6 minutes, or until al dente. Don’t overcook them, as they will still cook in the oven. Allow to cool.

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Spread a layer of the marinara sauce in a large baking pan.

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Snip a hole in the corner of the plastic bag with the spinach and cheese filling. Fill the cooled manicotti shells by squeezing one end of the bag, kind of like a piping bag in baking.

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Lay the filled shells in the pan and cover with the rest of the marinara sauce. Sprinkle over some more parmesan cheese and bake for 30 minutes. Heaven on a plate!

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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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