The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I’m a bore on the topic of books vs. films, as I’ve been told many times, and I’d have to agree. Don’t get me started on whether the film version is better than the book, because I will wax poetic for a good hour or two about the merits of the book and how the book is ALWAYS better than the film. However, I must come clean and shamefacedly admit that I have never in my life read Mario Puzo’s masterpiece The Godfather. Until now, that is.

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I’ve seen the film, of course. Like 30 times. Possibly more. I own the trilogy, for God’s sake. I can quote the movie nearly line-by-line (another reason not to watch movies with me because I will irritate the shit out of you by doing that) and I will gladly debate the merits of that much-maligned film The Godfather III, because I personally think it has many hidden gems within it. Just try to ignore Sofia Coppola’s performance and give her a break…..she was young and there are worse actresses in the world.

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Unless you live under a rock, you know the storyline. The Corleone family patriarch, Vito, runs a crime syndicate in 1950s New York. He has three sons, Santino (Sonny), Frederico (Fredo), and Michael, and a daughter, Constanza (Connie.) All are very different, and Sonny is expected to take over the family business, but when he is executed Mafia-style and when Vito Corleone has an attempt made on his life, Michael takes over, becomes the Don and is far more cold and ruthless than his father ever could be.

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I was surprised at how removed the narration of the book was, though. It’s told from the third-person, but even from that remove, it is a very cold and clinically written book of a passionate family. The dichotomy was odd, though it worked extremely well because when you read the scenes of violence, murder, etc., the emotional remove makes them much more powerful. I was also surprised at how Michael’s Sicilian wife, Apolonia, was portrayed. In the film, she has very much a personality, flirtatious and passionate and quite funny, actually. In the book, she really isn’t given much character at all, beyond being this gorgeous, sexual creature that Michael falls passionately in love with and must possess, until she is, of course, killed in the car explosion meant for him.’

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In terms of food, I had initially planned to recreate the scene where Clemenza teaches Michael to make  homemade ragú sauce when Michael is in hiding before killing Sollozzo and McCluskey, frying the garlic, etc. It’s a classic food scene and I love nothing more than making tomato sauces because it’s so relaxing. But I then I read the scene where a pregnant Connie cooks a meal of veal with peppers for her dickwad husband Carlo, and when he tells her to fuck off, she loses her temper, smashes the dishes on the table, and he proceeds to beat the living hell out of her.

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“I’m not hungry yet,” he said, still reading the racing form. “It’s on the table,” Connie said stubbornly. “Stick it up your ass,” Carlo said. He drank off the rest of the whiskey in the water glass, tilted the bottle to fill it again. He paid no more attention to her. Connie went into the kitchen, picked up the plates filled with food and smashed them……..the loud crashes brought Carlo in from the bedroom. He looked at the greasy veal and peppers splattered all over the kitchen walls and his finicky neatness was outraged. “You filthy guinea spoiled brat……clean that up right now or I’ll kick the shit out of you.” And he does, using a belt and his fists.

Pretty awful, both in the book and the film clip above, but it did start me thinking about veal. I had never made veal saltimbocca and this seemed like an excellent way to honor the Corleone family. This method comes from the legendary Anna del Conte’s book Gastronomy of Italy, which in my opinion, is like the Bible of contemporary Italian cooking. Her method does involve making the veal into little rolls, or involtini, so my friend Luca Marchiori says these should be called vitello involtino.

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INGREDIENTS
10 thin veal veal cutlets
10 slices prosciutto
10 fresh sage leaves
1/2 cup flour, for dusting the veal
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup white wine

METHOD
Lay out the veal cutlets on a flat surface.

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Place a strip of prosciutto and one sage leave atop each piece of meat.

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Roll up each veal cutlet and secure  with a toothpick to hold its shape.

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Mix salt and pepper into the flour, and dredge each veal roll in the seasoned flour.

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In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil and melt the butter in it, and when hot and bubbly, add in five of the veal rolls, browning on each side. I estimate it was roughly 5 minute per side. Don’t crowd the frying pan because they won’t brown and your lovely $25.00 veal cutlets will have gone to waste. I’m too cheap to want that.

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Let cool and fry the other five rolls.

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Remove the last rolls from the still-hot pan, and pour in the white wine, whisking and letting it bubble until it thickens into a lovely, syrupy reduction sauce, about 10 minutes. Pour over the veal rolls. The smell is amazing!

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Et voila! Veal saltimbocca, or as my friend Luca Marchiori suggested, vitelli involtini since they are rolled. Whatever. They are absolutely, mouth-wateringly delicious!

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Serve with some lovely, buttery polenta and roasted red bell peppers….hence, veal and peppers! Just don’t throw the food across the room a la Connie Corleone.

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The Chef’s Secret by Crystal King

Historical fiction is probably my favorite genre in the world, and anything set in my spirit country of Italy even more so. This marvelous book, The Chef’s Secret, not only meets both of those criteria, but it’s also about FOOD! And FORBIDDEN LOVE! and MYSTERY! And MORE FOOD! OK, I’ll calm down now, but you see why I am so excited about it. Aside from the fact that the author, the wonderful Crystal King, asked me to be part of the book’s publication by submitting a recipe for the companion e-cookbook, this book itself is so beautifully written, so full of familial and romantic and culinary love, that I, too, fell in love with it.

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Have you heard of Bartolomeo Scappi? Before Julia Child, before Jacques Pépin, before Emeril Lagasse and Nigella Lawson and Ina Garten and (my dearly departed future ex-husband) Anthony Bourdain, before the heyday of modern celebrity chefs, there was the immortal Scappi. He was personal chef to numerous cardinals and Pope Pius IV, was known to cook such exotic items as peacock, alligator and even fried chicken, and came to world fame when his meisterwork Opera dell’arte del cucinare was published in 1570. Though little is known about his personal life, this book tells the fictionalized account of his life in Renaissance Italy. And what a life it was!

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Scappi has just died in the opening pages, and his nephew Giovanni is mourning him terribly. Giovanni is the son of Scappi’s sister, and has been apprenticed to learn everything there is to be learned from his culinary genius uncle, and in fact, Scappi leaves him the bulk of his fortune, estate, and his collection of recipes that are hotly pursued and contested by rival chefs of the time. Among the papers he leaves to Giovanni is one book he requests be destroyed without being read. Well, in what literary world do you think THAT is going to happen? Of course Giovanni reads it, finding that it is written in a secret code, and attempts to decipher the mystery at the heart of his uncle’s life – the identity of the woman for whom Scappi had a deep, beautiful, abiding and forbidden love, whom he called “Stella” to protect her identity, and that colors the rest of Scappi’s life, and affects Giovanni in unexpected ways.

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Of course, this book brims over with luscious food passages and descriptions of simple meals, feasts, instructions on various kitchen utensils and equipment, table setting suggestions, and my personal favorite – roses carved from radishes by Scappi to show his love for “Stella.” But my own inspiration for the recipe I am detailing below and that was part of the wonderful e-cookbook, actually came from the passage when Giovanni meets Doctor Boccia in the street after Scappi’s death, and Boccia affectionately calls him “polpetta,” his endearing nickname for Giovanni reminding them both how they met when Giovanni was a young chef’s apprentice making meatballs.

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I was also incredibly touched, perhaps because I lost my mother to cancer during the time I was reading the book and developing this recipe, when I read the moving journal passage by Scappi’s affectionate family nickname for Giovanni – “little onion, cipollino.” Both affectionate names for Giovanni showed how loved he was by these figures in his life, which is the heart of the book after all.

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In Italian, what I made could be called polpette di vitello con pinoli, e cipolla con una riduzione di aceto balsamico, which has a lovely and poetic ring to it, in my humble opinion. 🙂 With that in mind, let’s go make some meatballs and onions in a balsamic reduction!

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For the meatballs:
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh sage
1/2 cup grated Asiago cheese
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 teaspoon sea salt
Ground black pepper
2 large eggs, room temperature

Heat the oven to 400F. In a dry, hot pan, toast the pine nuts until they are golden brown and give off a nutty scent. Don’t let them burn. Remove from heat and allow to cool while you mix the other ingredients.

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With your hands, mix together the beef and pork. Add in the garlic, the parsley and the sage, and mix again.

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Add in the 1/4 cup of Asiago cheese and the cooled pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper.

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Add the eggs, and mix together again with your hands.

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Form small balls and lay them on a parchment-covered baking tray. Bake for 25 minutes.

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For the cipolline onions:
12 cipolline onions
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
4 tablespoons unsalted butter

Lower the oven temperature to 350F. Peel the onions, trim the stems, cut them in half, and rinse them. Pat dry.

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Finely mince the rosemary.

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Heat a cast iron pan over medium high heat and and add the butter, the onions and sprinkle over the rosemary. Cook for 5-7 minutes on the stove.

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Transfer to the oven and bake for 35 minutes, until they brown and soften.

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For the balsamic reduction:
2 cups good quality balsamic vinegar. I used a Pinot Noir balsamic vinegar.
1 crushed clove of garlic

Pour balsamic vinegar into a metal saucepan, and add the crushed garlic clove.

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Boil on medium for roughly 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. It will reduce to a thick, syrupy glaze. Don’t leave it because the sugars in the balsamic vinegar can burn.

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Remove the garlic clove, and let cool slightly. Pour over the meatballs and cippoline onions. Eat immediately, with a glass of good red wine, and the spirit of Bartolomeo Scappi watching over you.

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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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