Vaporetto 13 by Robert Girardi

Robert Girardi is one of my favorite “unknown” writers. He wrote Madeleine’s Ghost, which I blogged about previously, and Vaporetto 13 is another novel that combines cynicism, hope, the supernatural, and a gorgeous city as the backdrop. In this case, Venice. You can read about what makes Venice so uniquely gorgeous and special by checking out my food blog friend Luca Marchiori’s love letter to Venezia here. Or you can just read this book.

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When I first read Girardi’s novel, I fell in love with the city, and the dark, mysterious, beautiful, and yet sordid labyrinth of bridges, palazzos and stone that was described. Venice comes across like an aging prostitute who still looks beautiful and radiates charm, but yet has a dark, debauched side that also beckons. When I traveled to Venice a few years after reading this book, it struck me that these shadowy back alleys of The Eternal City juxtaposed with the bright, shiny, touristy Venezia, is the real Venice. It is both a jewel box of sumptuous colored glass and shimmering, watery reflections from the canal, and a dark, dank place of crowded buildings, garbage scows and stray cats.

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God, how I love Venice! It is my spiritual home. It is a city that is reflected back upon itself every minute in the waters of the Grand Canal, so full of of life and history and such extreme beauty that, at times, I found myself overwhelmed. There is, after all, only so much stunning golden light and beautiful canals and rosy architecture, that I can handle. Venice is sensory overload in the best sense of the word, and Girardi brings Venice to life so evocatively.

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Re-reading this book as many times as I have, I also have found myself loving the main character, Jack Squire, a money trader with a dark, cynical view on the world. I hated him when I first read the book, but as I have gotten older, I understand him much more. He seems a man that can’t ever be surprised by anything anymore, who looks on the world like a huge roulette table waiting on the ball to hit black, and yet there is still something shiny and hopeful in him that he tries to tuck away. I hate to admit it, but I still have this sense of idealism inside of me, for all that I feel surrounded by such an ugly world sometimes. I still want the good guy to win, I still want people to live happily ever after, I still want love to conquer all. So, it seems, does Jack. When he meets Caterina, a strange, otherworldly Venetian woman with strong ties to the past and history of La Serenissima,  he is struck by her oddness and yet enticed and enthralled by, that very same quality. She speaks to that part of him that is still young, hopeful and believing in miracles. They embark on a very mysterious love affair, yet he is never able to truly penetrate the mystery of who she is. Until the end, when he realizes who………and what…….she is. His view of the world is forever altered.

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One of the more entertaining characters is Jack’s friend, Rinio Donato, a quintessential Italian man, married, Catholic….and a complete womanizer. He is a hoot, and he drags Jack along to Torcello and other lagoon islands, including the very strange and creepy Sant’Ariano, adventuring, eating, and drinking as they go. The food descriptions alone are worth the read. In one passage, Jack attends a celebratory feast at Rinio’s house, where he is felt up by Rinio’s sister and gorges on a luscious Venetian feast that includes rolled veal chops stuffed with prosciutto and gorgonzola, and a salad of escarole, walnut and pear, which are just the precursors to the main feast, a roasted suckling pig with an apple in its mouth.

“The empty pasta bowls were cleared away and replaced with platters of rollini di vitelli – veal chops wrapped around prosciutto and gorgonzola cheese and baked in a marinade of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, and white wine. Accompanying this was a salad of escarole, walnuts, and pears, and bottles of sweetish white wine from the Veneto. Italians eat slowly, their meals are long, drawn-out affairs, half food and wine, half air, which is to say animated conversation about nothing and everything.”

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I mean, how could anything stuffed with gorgonzola and prosciutto baked in lemon and olive oil and wine be bad? The store was out of escarole, so I instead opted for a salad of mixed greens with walnuts, pears and a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar and a bit of the blue cheese, to accompany the veal. This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS

2 veal chops, bone-in, about 1 inch thick apiece
Gorgonzola cheese, or other sharp blue
4 strips prosciutto, finely diced
1 shallot, finely diced
1/2 cup olive oil
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup good, drinkable wine, red or white
5 cloves garlic, finely minced with a Microplane grater

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Mixed greens – spinach, arugula and chicory is what I had on hand
Walnuts, toasted
2 pears, thinly sliced
Olive oil and lemon juice for the vinaigrette

METHOD

Pre-heat the oven to 375 F. In a small skillet, fry the prosciutto until just brown. Remove, and in the oil left in the pan, saute the diced shallot, with some red wine. Remove from the pan and let cool slightly, while you prepare your veal chops. Cut a small pocket into the veal, opposite side of the bone. Don’t cut all the way through the meat, just enough to be able to stuff the chop.

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Season the veal chops with salt and pepper. Mix the prosciutto and shallot with about half the packet of blue cheese, until nice and creamy but not melty. Stuff each veal chop with the mixture, and fasten with a toothpick to keep the cheese mixture inside the chop.

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In a good saute pan, heat a bit of olive oil and sear each veal chop about 3 minutes per side, but don’t char them. Let them rest a minute while you prepare the baking sauce. Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the white wine and the minced garlic in a cup and whisk together.

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Pour over the stuffed veal chops, reserving a bit for the end, cover, and put them in the oven for 15-20 minutes for a medium doneness, while you prepare the salad and vinaigrette, which is super difficult and time-consuming.

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Throw the mixed leaves into a large bowl, mix in the toasted walnuts, throw in the pears, sprinkle over a bit of the blue cheese, and then drizzle over a bit of olive oil, a bit more lemon juice, some sea salt,  and mix together vigorously. Pour over the salad and toss, probably with your hands to get the best amount of coating. That’s it. Very strenuous, as you can tell.

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You don’t want a lot of vinaigrette, just enough to lightly cover the salad, so using your very clean hands to toss is best here. When done mixing the salad, divide it onto two plates, take the veal from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Pour over the rest of the sauce you originally covered them with, put the chop onto the plate with the salad, and enjoy with some wine, preferably something light and Venetian, but hell, drink whatever type of wine you want! And you can do what I did, which was pretend I was sitting in a sunny cafe alongside the Grand Canal just off the Rialto Bridge, watching vaporettos and gondolas go by, and yearning for my Venice.

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“Still, as Rinio once said, what is a city, if not the people in it? What is Venice, without the peculiar, inventive race of men and women that built her up from the mud and reeds of the lagoon?”

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Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

A very magical and whimsical book ostensibly written for children, it also translates beautifully for adults. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is, at its heart, a poignant treatise on the importance of words and stories and language and not censoring either your imagination or your voice. Written by Salman Rushdie, whose seminal work The Satanic Verses earned him a death warrant from the former Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, this novel was written for his son Zafar when Rushdie was in hiding.

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Reading this wonderful tale about Haroun, whose father Rashid, is a master storyteller, and who must go on a journey through the world of stories to help his father regain his storytelling ability, was both inspiring and somewhat depressing. Since Rushdie wrote this book for his son when he was in exile during the fatwa put on his life by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, you can detect a sadness, a wistfulness in the words.

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Along his journey, as with every type of quest book, the main character runs into a fantastical array of side characters, including Blabbermouth – reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Arabian Nights, and so many more works of fantasy and fiction.

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“You mean that just because you’re a girl you aren’t allowed to be a page?” Haroun asked sleepily. “I suppose you only do what you’re told,” Blabbermouth hotly rejoined. “I suppose you always eat up all the food on your plate, even the cauliflower.”

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Cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables, but I only like it when it’s cooked. I know, I’m just weird not liking raw vegetables, but either the texture or that green underflavor just makes me want to barf. So in doing some research on ways to jazz up roasted cauliflower, I came across this marvelous method on the Whole Bite Blog, and am reproducing it in honor of Salman Rushdie’s paean to his son and to the importance of free speech.

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INGREDIENTS
1 large head of cauliflower
3/4 cup olive oil, divided
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons capers
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

METHOD
Pre-heat the oven to 425F. Wash the cauliflower and break into florets in a large bowl. Pour over the olive oil and mix well with your hands to ensure every piece is covered.

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Lay the cauliflower pieces on a large flat baking tray and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and lemon zest. Roast for 25 minutes until the cauliflower browns, then flip the pieces so the other side can brown evenly, and roast another 25 minutes.

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While the cauliflower is roasting in the last 15 minutes, heat a cast-iron skillet and toast the almonds until they start to brown and you can smell the nutty flavor. Allow to cool a bit.

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For the vinaigrette, mix the lemon juice and zest, the capers, Dijon mustard and maple syrup together. Whisk in the olive oil slowly until the vinaigrette thickens. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

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Put the roasted cauliflower into a large bowl, sprinkle over the toasted almonds, and slowly pour over the vinaigrette, stirring to ensure everything gets a good dose.

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Plate up and serve with chicken or salmon or anything else. It is sooooooo delicious, with savory flavors beautifully offset by the tangy lemon and sweet maple syrup, all gorgeously enhancing the roasted nuttiness of the cauliflower. Definitely a keeper!

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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Thanks to JG for the photography.

Set in a slightly alternate universe, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell has been touted as the Harry Potter for adults. It’s far more than that, however. Set in England during the Napoleonic wars, its a lengthy book that delves deeply into the mythology of Faerie.

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One thing that has always stood out to me is the lack of a true mythology in England. There are the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but that’s not an origin myth, nor are there gods and goddesses in British lore. Faeries and other interesting creatures abound but there is no real etymology, similar to the ancient Egyptians or Mesopotamians or Aztecs. Just something to ponder while you’re cooking.

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Anyway, back to the book. I enjoyed it, it though it did take me a few tries to really get into it. Not because the story wasn’t fascinating, but because of THOSE DAMN FOOTNOTES! I loathe and despise footnotes. Probably left over from my time in graduate school,  because the amount of books I had to read with footnotes, and all the papers I had to write with footnotes literally, at times, drove me to drink! Not that it takes much, truth be told.

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In a nutshell, Mr. Norrell is a quiet, somewhat hermited English gentleman who has spent most of his life amassing the world’s biggest library on magical books. When he is approached by a local guild of magical theorists, he demonstrates his practical magical ability by bringing the stone statues on the local church to life. He is thus brought to London to become the king’s magical advisor, and it’s there that he encounters Jonathan Strange, a young gadabout who is looking for a career so that his love, Arabella, will finally marry him. He takes up the study of magic from Mr. Norrell, becoming far more adept at the magical arts than anyone would have ever dreamed.

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There are intertwining stories involving The Raven King, the magician Vinculus, and Lady Pole and her subsequent enchantment when she is ostensibly brought back to life by Mr. Norrell. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out Mr. Norrell is not really much of a magician at all, as his skills and spells are all given to him by The Gentleman With Hair Like Thistledown. The story alternates between the England of the day, and Faerieland of the night, where people dance and dance until daylight, and return to their awakened selves still under the influence of Faerie.

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Being England, there was much mention of traditional British food such as roast beef, gravy, scones, Yorkshire puddings, and other such fare. Having never had fresh beetroot and a hatred of the disgusting canned stuff I had to eat as a child, this passage caught my attention.

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He wore a mourning ring on the fourth finger of his left hand with a thin strand of brown hair inside it and Sir Walter noticed that he continually touched it and turned it on his finger. They ordered a good dinner consisting of a turtle, three or four beefsteaks, some gravy made with the fat of a green goose, some lampreys, escalloped oysters and a small salad of beet root.

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Beef and beet root sounded unusual, and after recently coming across several references to roasted beets in the NY Times Cooking section, doable. And if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you’ll be familiar with my love for cheese. Cheese is God. Next to wine and coffee, that is.  So I thought I’d combine steak, roasted beets, and blue cheese.

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I marinate my meat in olive oil, red wine, lemon juice, Worchestershire sauce, roasted garlic cloves, and salt and pepper. The golden rule of grilling is oil the meat, not the grill, or everything will smoke like hell. And make sure the meat is at room temperature before grilling. Otherwise, just order pizza and call it a day.

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This is the method that worked for me, based loosely on this lovely recipe at Olivia’s Cuisine, but of course, with my own added twists. Gotta be unique, you know!

INGREDIENTS
1 large steak, about 1 inch thick, marinated using the method above
3 beets
1 large sweet potato
1 cup of walnuts
5 cups fresh spinach
1 cup blue cheese crumbles
1/3 cup lemon juice
1/4 cup olive oil
5-6 roasted garlic cloves (use from the steak marinade)
Salt and pepper

METHOD
Heat the oven to 375F, and heat an oiled, stovetop, ridged grill pan. Yes, you can multitask!

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Slice the sweet potato into thick pieces.

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Then slice the beets. I highly advise wearing an apron and possibly kitchen gloves for this part. And don’t wear white, unless you want to look like Lady Macbeth.

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Lay the potato and the beets on a parchment-paper covered baking tray, and pour over some olive oil. Roast for 45 minutes, checking to make sure they don’t burn.

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While the veg are roasting, cook the steak on the grill for 8 minutes total, flipping every minute so that it cooks evenly, and gets those beautiful grill mark stripes. Let cool, then slice into similarly sized chunks as the beet and potato.

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In a dry, nonstick pan, toast the walnuts until just brown.

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Remove the potato and beets from the oven and allow to cool. Sprinkle over some sea salt, and in a large bowl, combine with the spinach, the steak slices,  and the toasted walnuts. Toss together well.

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Combine the olive oil, the lemon juice, the steak pan juices and the garlic cloves from the marinade, and the blue cheese, in a blender or food processor, to make a dressing. Add a bit of salt and pepper, and pour over the salad.

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It’s DAMN delicious! Fantastic with a strong red wine, the flavors are amazing and the roasted beets are amazing, nutty and sweet and perfectly textured.

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