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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The Mirror Thief by Martin Seay

Photography by me.

Are you a Venetian at heart? I am, and any book set in Venice has a special place on my bookshelf. Venice is the most beautiful place on earth, because it shimmers. That’s the only way I can describe it. The waters surrounding the islands, the lagoons with their sea-green waves, the sight of the church towers from Piazza San Marco or Isola di San Michele from the Fondamenta Nuova……….pictures don’t do it justice and I have rarely read a book description that fully does, either. You simply have to visit Venice and see its gorgeous, watery-reflected beauty for yourself.

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The Mirror Thief is set in three separate historical timeframes, and in three different Venices. Venice, Italy is the heart of the tale and where the story of conspiracy, theft, and some very odd metaphysical concepts of time, starts with the story of Crivano, an alchemist who wants to steal the secret of Venetian glassmaking in the late 1500s. Venice Beach, California is literally the midpoint of the book and the historical setting of late 1950s and the beatnik poet scene in which Stanley seeks out the author of the book that has affected him profoundly, and finally, the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2003, when Curtis goes on a quest to find Stanley, and instead, finds the book that has colored his entire life, The Mirror Thief, an alchemical book of magical poetry written about Crivano himself.

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The three timeframes are connected incredibly well, due to Seay’s expertise in both writing and connecting disparate concepts. I was hooked from the first sentence, and although I had to make sure and not lose the threads of the complex storylines and historical timeframes, honestly, this is the most engrossing book I’ve read in years. It also made me consider the concept of mirrors and reflections – do we exist only because we are reflected back to ourselves in a mirror? Can the mirror ever reflect anything but the truth? What is the truth, and how do we see it reflected back to ourselves?

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My favorite line is:  It is difficult, but probably necessary, to remember that books always know more than their authors do. They are always wiser. Once they are in the world, they develop their own peculiar ideas. I’ve never written a book, but I agree with the idea that books do become something completely different than what their authors intended. It’s inevitable, don’t you think? In reading any book, we all bring our own ideas, preconceived notions, heartbreaks, beliefs and convictions.

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A scene where Crivano arrives at an inn in the Rialto area to meet Tristao, one of his co-conspirators, featured some truly delicious sounding foods, including what I took to be another description for risotto.

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One of Anzolo’s Friulian serving-girls has emerged from the kitchen, bearing sweet white wine from Sopron. Before Crivano’s cup is full, a second girl arrives with food: tiny artichokes, rice porridge, Lombardy quail stuffed with mincemeat……………Crivano takes a spoonful of rice porridge – rich with beef broth and mushrooms – and chews it slowly, trying to imagine what Narkis would have him do.

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Risotto – rice porridge – is one of those deceptively simple dishes. It’s essentially stirring liquid into rice for 25-30 minutes until absorbed. Yet, like any other dish that relies on simplicity for its tastiness, it also relies on high-quality ingredients. Arborio rice is what is usually used, or Vialone Nano, which is a bit harder to find where I am. I decided some beef-flavored risotto bursting with artichoke hearts, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese was in order this Sunday afternoon, based on the method clearly outlined in Chestnuts and Truffles post on making risotto like a Nonna. Ciao, bella!

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INGREDIENTS
1 14-oz jar artichoke hearts
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup baby bella mushrooms (sliced)
3 cups spinach
6 cups beef stock and 1 beef stock cube
1 cup white wine
1 red onion, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 and 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup parmesan cheese

METHOD
Saute the mushrooms in half the olive oil and butter, about 10 minutes.

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Add the spinach, mix well and cook until the spinach has wilted. Set aside.

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Heat the beef broth in a large pan. Bring to a low boil and keep it hot.

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In another pan over medium heat, add the rest of the olive oil and butter, and cook the onion and garlic until soft.

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Pour in the arborio rice, and stir. The idea is to get the butter and onion flavors into the rice, and also to toast it a bit, again for added flavor. This is called la tostatura, as the rice toasts. So says my friend and awesome chef Luca Marchiori.

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Splash over the white wine, and give the rice another mix. Then start slowly adding the hot beef stock, one ladleful at a time. Stir each ladleful until the liquid has completely absorbed.

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Continue in this vein, repeating a ladleful of stock and stirring until absorbed. It’ll probably take a good 25-30 minutes. I find stirring risotto very therapeutic, along the lines of making caramelized onions. It soothes the heart and mind.

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When the risotto is al dente, add in the wilted spinach, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed. Sprinkle over the Parmesan and again, stir.

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Serve with more of the same white wine you used for the risotto, and eat with sheer pleasure in your heart, dreaming of Venice.

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