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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Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly

I think I’ve mentioned my lack of enthusiasm for most non-fiction books before. However, I discovered Sharon Bennett Connolly’s amazing blog, History, The Interesting Bits, a few years ago, and her subsequent book, Heroines of the Medieval World, so hooked me into her writing that I immediately ordered the book and was sucked into the medieval universe of little-known historical women who accomplished some pretty amazing things.

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Bennett Connolly has that knack of turning everyday, ordinary, day-to-day lives into something greater and larger than all of us. What I particularly love about this book is that it tells stories of women who actually existed, had kids, raised families, married (often multiple times), maintained homes, and who made a name for themselves within a world that essentially viewed them as property. There are, of course, the very well known medieval heroines such as Joan of Arc, Heloise d’Argenteuil (she of Abelard and Heloise romantic fame), Hildegarde of Bingen, and a dear and personal friend of mine from Catholic school, St. Julian of Norwich who wrote Revelations of Divine Love and was the first Catholic mystic I ever read……..though not the last.

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There weren’t any specific food mentions in this book, but being that it’s about women and their traditional role in a culture and society, of course cooking and food preparation was likely the most essential task in their lives, after giving birth, of course. And it gave me some leeway in choosing what I wanted to make. Bennett Connolly’s heroines lived in medieval England, France, Italy, Spain, Wales and Germany, so you have a marvelous variety of food right there to choose from AND the marvelous variety of female heroines. And my favorite heroine in this book has to be the little-known Venetian writer Christine de Pisan. One of the very first women who was actually paid for her writing – imagine that! – she was born in Venice, Italy in 1364.

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Her father was a court astrologer and physician for the Venetian court until he accepted a position with the French court and the family moved there in 1368. So though native to Italy, she was very French in her outlook, political views, and most especially in her writing. Her husband died in 1389, leaving her with three children. In order to support them, she turned to writing and produced her most well-known work, The Book of the City of Ladies, an image of which is shown below.

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As Bennett Connolly describes:
The book tells of the lives of past and present heroines, including pagan, Hebrew, and Christian ladies who were renowned for being examples of exemplary womankind, famed for their chastity, loyalty and devotion. It included the lives of female saints who remained steadfast in their devotion to God in the face of martyrdom. City of Ladies was Christine’s response to the misogynistic portrait of womankind that was present in many works of the era, in which women were blamed for the misery in which men found themselves.

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That doesn’t sound at ALL familiar now, does it?

Anyway, I found this marvelous website dedicated to medieval recipes from various countries in Europe – www.medievalcuisine.com – and found one from Italy that sounded delicious. So in honor of Christine de Pisan and all the women of medieval times, I present cheese and pinenut fritters – fritelle da Imperadore Magnifici – which would have been commonly eaten as a sweet dish in the Roman and Venetian regions in the time of de Pisan’s life. I tweaked to make it more savory and added my own flavoring twists as I always do.

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INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
1/2 cup shaved Parmesan cheese
4 sage leaves, finely minced
2 garlic cloves, peeled
2 egg whites
2 generous handfuls of pine nuts
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons flour
Olive oil for frying

METHOD
Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan until they brown and give off that nutty scent. Set aside.

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Mix the cheeses together, and grate in the garlic.

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Gently whisk the egg whites before adding to the cheese mixture.

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Add in the toasted pine nuts and the finely minced sage, and then add in the flour and the salt, stirring everything together.

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Heat the olive oil until shimmering, and one spoonful at a time, scoop the cheesy batter into the oil. Fry until golden brown, about 2-3 minutes per side, and drain on paper towels. Eat while still hot.

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These are quite delicious, not overly salty and very rich, so you’ll probably only want one or two. And though the flavorings are my own, the basic method is essentially medieval, and are authentically Italian. Just like Christine de Pisan!

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Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Though I disliked the movie, which was absolutely nothing like the book (and not in a good way,) Under the Tuscan Sun is so beautifully written that you almost feel as though you’re walking through sunlit fields of sunflowers in the countryside surrounding Cortona. Normally, I don’t go for these types of memoirs, simply because the majority of them – and I’m looking at you, Eat, Pray, Love – are such self-absorbed, whinily written, so-called journeys of discovery by wealthy, pampered, spoiled women who don’t appreciate what they have. Frances Mayes’ gorgeous tale of her life in the stunning countryside of Tuscany, however, is truly a voyage of discovery.

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The author is a teacher who, with her husband, buys a rundown villa in the town of Cortona. They fix it up when they return each summer, and it becomes not just a second home, but a true oasis for them both. They become friends with the natives of Cortona, and eventually truly become citizens of this magical little town tucked into the hillsides of Tuscany.

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I’ve actually visited Cortona and found it as beautiful as any place in Italy. Pitched roofs, pigeons, a historic town square, the ubiquitous flowers and trees that scream Italy, cornerside bars and cafes, yellow-striped canopies that wave in the breeze………Cortona is the quintessential small Italian town that charms and seduces. Below is a photo I took in that wonderful town. It is a place that is filled with happy memories, not to mention it had one of the only hotels that still had on the heating during that chilly late spring.

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The house Frances buys in Cortona is called Bramasole. Isn’t that just gorgeous? It means “yearning for the sun.” I think that is all of us, no matter where we are. We are all yearning for the warmth and comfort of the sunshine, especially in the depths of winter. And of course, one of the things she does in her new house is cook. She cooks up a storm, utilizing the seasonal bounty that is Italy in the summer and winter, and her cooking echoes the ongoing work she and her husband do to the house. She learns to use the raw materials to enhance the beautiful life in Italy they have created together, just as they have created this gorgeous oasis of a home in a country not theirs by birth, but by love.

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I chose her recipe for sage pesto with basil, because I needed to use up some of my homegrown basil, and also because I just adore a good pesto and hadn’t had any in awhile. It is so nice to have around, to spread on toast or atop a piece of grilled meat, or  with roasted vegetables. And it is so simple, and yet so gratifying to make! Yum!

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INGREDIENTS
For the sage pesto:
1 cup basil leaves
1 cup sage leaves
1 cup walnuts
5 cloves garlic
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup Parmesan cheese

METHOD
Using a food processor or a small food chopper, finely chop the sage, basil, and garlic until very finely chopped.

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Add the walnuts and pulse again until everything is finely chopped into an almost paste-like texture.  Add the olive oil gradually, in a thin stream, pulsing all the while.

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Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper here if necessary. Add in the lemon juice and sprinkle in the Parmesan and pulse again until the sauce thickens. Taste again and season as needed. Set aside.

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I served it atop some nicely grilled pork chops and it was sublime!

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Even better as leftovers the next day, as you can see.

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