Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Round Up of Venetian Inspired Dishes: A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena De Blasi (August/September 2014 Selection)


Thanks to all who participated in the August/September round of Cook the Books.  This was my first hosting gig and I appreciate you all reading A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi with me.   I was awed by the cuisine that was created.



First out of the gate is Fiori di Zucca al Forno  from Culinary Adventures with Camilla.   (Camilla is always the first to post up.)   She references her year spent working in Rome during her post and I was envious. While in the country she was able to visit Venice, too.  She writes: 
I spent, though not a thousand days in Venice, time enough to understand her appeal. Yes, I wrote 'her'. Venice, the Dame. La Serenissima. The most serene. There is something magical about an entire city that exists on the water.
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Camilla was one of many who questioned the “love at first site” integrity of the story but there is no questioning the deliciousness of her Fiori di Zucca al Forno.   (Also, make sure you check out her husband’s paintings inspired by Camilla’s photos from her Venetian journey which she posted.)

Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm loved the book and pointed out (along with others) that she enjoyed that the story revolved around a more mature couple:
 I loved how Marlena allowed the "stranger" to sweep her away.  I also loved how, being more mature, she had limited expectations of what a move to Europe would mean and was only slightly disillusioned by the whole thing.  I loved all her experiences at the market place and I felt for her trying to live without all the conveniences with which she was accustomed.

Wendy was inspired to make Porri Gratinai (Gratin of Leeks).   Wendy used onions and served this dish up with grilled steaks.



Simona from briciole (one of the other co-hosts of CTB) has also visited Venice and you must go to the post to see her wonderful photographs of the gondolas.  Simona was inspired to make pasta, but not just any pasta.   She made nodi (knotted pasta)

In Italian, to get married is sposarsi. We don't use the metaphorical expression "to tie the knot" (literally, fare un nodo). The current selection of our Cook the Books, A Thousand Days in Venice in which author Marlena de Blasi talks about her marriage to a Venetian man, brought to mind the expression. My passion for turning pasta dough into interesting shapes did the rest: I tried to tie pasta dough into small simple knots and the result was pleasing.
 Pleasing, indeed, Simona!

Amy from Amy’s Cooking Adventures is the newest member of CTB.  Welcome!  Amy was more inspired by Venice than the book.
 I loved the imagery of the story.  The descriptions of the places and the foods makes me desperately want to visit Venice and experience it for all it is.  Despite that, I had trouble connecting with Marlena.  I’m not sure if it was because I spend most of the book thinking it was a novel (versus a memoir) or just because I’m at a very different stage of life than she is (she’s older and divorced with grown children, I’m younger, married, and my kids are young.)

Nonetheless, she whipped up a keeper of a dish, Pappa al Pomodoro, putting a twist on di Blasi’s recipe and serving it up in bread bowls.   Since we are nearing soup season, I am definitely keeping this in mind.


Alicia at Foodycat made me smile.   She first sums up the book:  
An exuberant American chef with flamboyant taste in textiles falls inexplicably in love with a repressed Italian bank clerk with daddy issues, and through him falls explicably in love with Venice.
She continues:
For me, de Blasi just couldn't quite convey why she was attracted to her stranger. She herself seems like a glorious broad who I'd love to go drinking with, but he remained a mystery. But then, this is a memoir, not a romance, and other people's relationships are often a bit baffling. I never understand how people who really like food end up with people who don't much care what they eat.
Although I love the book, her statements are truly apt and I would like to share a glass of wine with de Blasi as well.

Alicia decided on Seafood Risotto, a perfect dish to celebrate a book about Venice.




Cathy from Delaware Girl Eats made Baby Clams with White Wine Reduction Abruzzo Style, a dish that reminded her of her own trip to Italy.  She remembers her own time in Venice:
When it was not raining I prowled the Rialto Market, fascinated with its glorious riot of vegetables and freshly caught seafood.  I wandered the dank callees and discovered the local wine bars, among them, Vino Vino, which is mentioned in the first pages of the book.   It was near my hotel and became my favorite place to stop by for a warming glass of red wine and nibbles of the appertivos lined up behind the glass window.  With only a dozen seats and flanking a canal, the place offered a cozy respite from the damp chill outside.


Deb at Kahakai Kitchen (another co-host) was drawn in by the meal that Marlena cooked for Fernando when she visited her in The States: Talgiatelle con Salsadi Noci Arrostite (Pasta with Walnut Sauce).   Deb, I almost chose this one, too.

I truly laughed out loud when I read Deb's description of Fernando:
I liked the fact that De Blasi isn't some young thing and had lived a full life before finally finding love with her "stranger" but, I couldn't quite get the immediate appeal of a somewhat needy, slightly stalker-ish Peter Sellers. (A somewhat needy slightly stalker-ish George Clooney or Liam Neeson maybe...)
I think her description of "The Stranger" is dead on.   I also think she nailed her dish.

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Joanne at What's on the List? Also made Fresh Pasta with Walnut Sauce.   Joanne loved the book and has even read it multiple times.  She says,"I am a sook (Aussie lingo for a softie in a good way) when it comes to romance.”  She does question Marlena’s  decision to fall in love and move to another country as being a bit extreme. 
If Marlena was your friend, would you think her decision was a bit strange or “as a friend,” would you be supportive of her decision each and every step of the way? 
Joanne also is dying for this book to be made into a film and asks her readers who should be cast in the title roles.  My vote is Helena Bonham Carter for Marlena.   Woody Allen for “The Stranger”???

Here is Joanne's inspired dish:  Fresh Pasta with Walnut Sauce.



Rachel from The Crispy Cook enjoyed the book.

Marlena seems a larger-than-life character and has a bit of bravado, after suffering a tortuous first marriage and a "grim childhood, scattered here and there with the hideous". As a fellow romantic, I rooted for her to make things work with Fernando and sighed with pleasure when they did. It was not a shudderingly violent sort of love affair, but one that was quiet and sure: "Now all the doors are open, and there is a warm yellow light behind them." Ah.


Rachel drew inspiration from  both Southern Italy and her fall garden where she found “white eggplants, parsley, tomatoes, garlic, onions, and basil” for her caponata (or what she calls Sicilian version of Ratatouille).


As Camilla is always the first to post, I am usually the last.   

It wasn't hard for me to pick a recipe.   I love pasta.  I love mushrooms.   I love wine.   (It was just hard for me to find the time to make the recipe. It didn't help matters that I misplaced my copy of the book.  For the last two weeks, I have been searching frantically.  Of course, I had put it in a very safe place.)

I made Braised Mushrooms with Homemade Tagliatelle (based on de Blasi's "Wild Mushrooms in Late-Harvest Wine"). 

My pasta did not turn out as beautiful as Simona's nodi, but this sauce is unbelievable.

To sum up, I think some of us "more seasoned" readers identified more with de  Blasi even though we were all a little confused about the attraction.  I think we all loved her descriptions of Venice and the food references and recipes.   I leave it to you whether or not you follow the rest of Marlena and Fernando's adventures in Italy as chronicled in her other books.

Again, thank you for participating in this round of CTB.  Please join Cook the Books for the October/November selection:  That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx and hosted by Simona of briciole.  I started this book as soon as Simona announced her selection and I have to say, "I LOVE IT."   I love Proulx' writing style and the description of the scenery of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles.    But, I have said enough.  



Ciao, until we meet again to discuss it all.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Our August/September 2014 Selection: A Thousand Days in Venice

Ciao!  

A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance was one of those paperback novels that you pick up on those ubiquitous "Summer Reading" tables at the bookstore.  Call these "beach reads" or "fun reads," I typically don't expect a whole lot from this genre.   That being said, this "Summer Reading" table is where I was first introduced to Marlena di Blasi.


Di Blasi, a former chef from St. Louis, chronicles a solo trip to Venice, a trip in which she falls in love with the "The Floating City" and with a Venetian named Fernando.  She speaks a little bit of Italian.  He speaks less English. A Thousand Days follows her spontaneous decision to live life and share her heart with Fernando (“the stranger”),  immersing herself in the food, culture and people of Italy.  It is a love story between a man, a woman and a truly beautiful city.  Di Blasi also includes some authentic recipes such as Prugne Addormentate (Sleeping Pears), Pappa al Pomodoro, and Porcini Brasati con Moscato (Wild Mushrooms Braised in Late-Harvest Wine) to name a few.  In this very romantic memoir, she describes their exploration of the city, their developing romance, and the realization that they have both found their soul-mates.

I soon became an über fan.  A Thousand Days in Venice led me to the sequel, A Thousand Days in Tuscany, which led me to The Lady in the Palazzo, then to That Summer in Sicily, and finally Antonia and her Daughters.   (All of these books follow Marlena and Ferdinand as they explore Italy together.) She is also the author of two regional cookbooks:  Regional Foods of Northern Italy (a James Beard Foundation Award finalist) and Regional Foods of Southern Italy.

I am sure that re-reading A Thousand Days in Venice will spark me to pick up di Blasi's other books: Dolce e Salata (a book that falls between their adventures in Venice and Tuscany) and Amandine: A Novel.  



Di Blasi and Ferdinand currently reside in Orvieto, Italy.


Submissions for this round of CTB are due September 30, 2014.  Anyone can join in the Cook the Books fun by reading and blogging about the book and cooking up a dish inspired by its contents. Just contact me when your entry post is up by commenting on this post and/or sending me an email at eliotseats@gmail.com.


If you're new to Cook the Books, check out our About and Guidelines pages or leave a question in the comments here.   Please also check out some of the previous Round-Ups for examples of members' posts.

Arrivederci,

Debra (Eliot's Eats)


Postscript: I am also über excited to be hosting my first CTB selection as an official co-host, so I hope you all enjoy this selection and get inspired to make something romantic, decadent, and delicious.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Roundup of Delectable Jacques Pépin-Inspired Dishes for Cook the Book June/July Selection: The Apprentice

It is no wonder that the legendary chef, author, cooking teacher, and television personality Jacques Pépin inspired our Cook the Books group to make some amazing dishes through his foodie memoir, The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, our June/July book pick. It seemed that Pépin's book and the man himself were universally loved by everyone participating--whether they were a Pépin fan to begin with, or newly introduced to him through his words.



Pépin wasn't on the radar for Camilla of Culinary Adventures with Camilla until she read the book, but she plans to seek him out, especially now that she's tried his Fromage Fort. Camilla says, "It means 'strong cheese' in French and it's the ultimate way of repurposing leftover cheese. I love revamping leftovers into something completely different. Pépin's father used to combine pieces of Camembert, Brie, Swiss, bleu cheese and goat cheese together with his mother's leek broth, some white wine and crushed garlic. These ingredients marinated in a cold cellar for a week to a week-and-a-half. Pépin's wife, Gloria, makes a milder version in a food processor that takes only seconds. It's that version I decided to make.



Welcome Wendy of A Day in the Life on the Farm, joining out CTB group for the first time! Wendy says she was "flabbergasted by how much I enjoyed reading the story of Jacques Pepin and his life learning how to be a chef.  What a down to earth, kind man he is and what a wonderful family he has." She says, "There were a lot of recipes included in this autobiography but the one I decided to make as a side dish for our dinner tonight was the Semi Dry Tomatoes and Mozzarella Salad.  I make Caprese Salads quite often but this salad has a couple of twists so I wanted to see how it compares to others that I have enjoyed."



Cathy of Delaware Girl Eats was lucky enough to get to meet Pépin saying, "When I attended a chef’s roundtable, he spoke genuinely about his life working in French kitchens and amiably signed cookbooks afterward. I brought my copy of “Jacques and Julia Cooking Together” and that autographed book holds a special place on my cookbook shelf." Cathy made this gorgeous Bastille Day Red White and Blue Dessert and said, "It features blueberries, which have just come into season in nearby New Jersey. They are a delight dressed with nothing more than a little sugar and whipped cream in this dish which perfect to serve on a sultry July day.



My fellow Hawaii food blogger Claudia of Honey From Rock says, "...what an entertaining writer he is!  I have to think when I've so much enjoyed a memoir." It inspired a lovely dinner of Potato Turnip Galette with Roast Chicken. Claudia says, "What came most powerfully to mind for me was the lovely smell of roasting chicken, I don't know why.  Especially when liberally covered with chopped garlic, rosemary, salt and pepper, inside and out. ... In another place he writes of a galette (a flat cake) made of potatoes and mushrooms, so I decided to do a combination galette/gratin, one layer of grated potatoes and turnips, with a bit of onion, and milk, topped with Gruyere cheese, to go with the roast chicken."



CTB co-host Rachel, The Crispy Cook, was inspired to make Jacques' Venison Revenge Ragout, saying "...I decided to create something with venison, in reference to the most harrowing incident related in the book: Pepin's nighttime car accident with a deer that left him with a broken back, two broken hips, a broken leg, cracked pelvis and a left arm that was so badly fractured that his surgeon considered amputating it. What an ordeal! But Pepin doesn't dwell on that incident, and segues into his subsequent experiences in teaching cooking classes, working with corporate clients and writing cookbooks. But I feel Jacques should have his revenge against that kamikaze deer with a venison dish, so I pulled some venison stew meat that we had in the freezer care of Dan's hunting cousin and put together a delicately seasoned venison stew."  



Tina of Squirrel Head Manor says, "I didn’t know anything about Jacques Pepin’s personal life, his childhood or training in the culinary industry. After reading this book I know so much about him and enjoyed each and every chapter." The simple but flavorful Semi-Dry Tomatoes and Mozzarella Salad called to her, she says, "Recipes follow each chapter so there are many to select and drool over. French cooking doesn’t have to be complicated. Any of the French cookbooks have call for absolute simplicity and this is what Pepin delivers.



CTB co-host Simona of briciole just caught a brief glimpse of Pépin and Julia Child on television years ago but found his memoir "quite a pleasant read, seasoned with a nice dose of recipes." Simona made the unique Tapenade with Figs and Mint, saying, "Pépin's version has two unusual ingredients: dried figs (fichi secchi) and mint leaves (foglioline di menta). When blended with the traditional components of tapenade, the two newcomers create a multi-layered flavor in which the sweetness of figs, the saltiness of preserved olives, the tanginess of capers and anchovies, the fresh aroma of mint (with a light citrusy note in my case) and the richness of olives and olive oil create a combination that surprises at every bite."



The book led to many pop culture connections to Jacques for CTB co-host Debra of Eliot's Eats. (Check out her very humorous post to see!) She says, "What struck me the most about The Apprentice is Pépin’s humor (much of it self-deprecating). He isn’t above describing his humorous misadventures and foibles." For her dish, Debra chose to make a French and American classic inspired by Pépin's maman saying, "What’s more American than apple pie so I decided on Pépin’s  recipe of his mother’s Apple Tart. (Besides, The Hubs loves apple pie.)



Finally, it will come as no surprise to most of you that over at Kahakai Kitchen, I took inspiration in a bowl of soup--Pépin's recipe for Tomato Chowder with Mollet Eggs. I just cannot resist a dish with runny egg yolk or a soup with toppings and it was a chance to try a new technique. Jacques says, "...mollet (moll-ay) eggs are similar to poached eggs in texture, with runny yolks and soft whites. The eggs are cooked in their shells in barely boiling water for about 6 minutes, then thoroughly cooled and carefully shelled." My shelling technique needs work but the resulting soup was one of the best soups I have made/eaten in quite a while. Thank you Jacques! 



If it is possible to gain weight from putting together a roundup I am sure I just put on more than a few pounds from the descriptions of all of these incredible dishes. I think Pépin would be proud of all of us! Thanks to everyone who joined in this round of Cook the Books.


Please join us for August/September when we will be journeying to Italy for A Thousand Days in Venice, by Marlena De Blasi hosted by Debra of Eliot's Eats.  

Aloha!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Cook The Books June/July 2014 Selection: "The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen" by Jacques Pépin

I was off-the-rock (aka Hawaii) and back for meetings in my old stomping grounds of Seattle in 2004, having dinner at the house of one of my favorite and coolest foodie friends and former co-worker. She had just finished The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin and offered up her copy, saying how much she liked it and how she thought I would enjoy it. Mary is the person who way-back-when introduced me to the perfection of crisp and bright green haricots verts (growing up at my house they were slightly mushy, olive-colored, and called green beans) and taught me the joys of creamed baby leeks and the swoon-worthy pairing of figs and dark chocolate. The week she moved to Seattle from San Francisco, she pulled a heavy pan and a container of aborio rice from her boxes and effortlessly stirred together a simple but amazing risotto (my first) while we drank wine and caught up in her mostly unpacked kitchen. Based on my experience, if it was food related and Mary said I was going to love it, it was pretty certain that I would.  


This proved true with The Apprentice. It's hard not to respect Jacques Pépin and be charmed by his warmth and amazed by the career he has had in his over half-century of cooking from his first apprenticeship in a restaurant at the age of 13. Now approaching the age of 79, Pépin is a prolific chef, teacher and author, writing over 20 cookbooks and hosting or co-hosting 13 different cooking shows over the years. In The Apprentice, Pépin, tells of growing up in France and working in his mother's kitchens, his time spent training and cooking in Paris, his move to the United States in 1959 and many stories of the kitchens and the people he worked with--including some of the greats like Craig Claiborne, Julia Child, and James Beard. 

Going through my stacks of hoarded books library, I came across my gifted copy and had the urge to re-read it and make it our June/July 2014 CTB selection. I hope you all find it as entertaining and engrossing as I do. (Hey, even Anthony Bourdain called it "an instant classic!"). I'm sure there will be plenty of cooking inspiration to be found with the inclusion of some of Pépin's favorite recipes in the book--not to mention the vast amount of recipes available in his plethora of cookbooks and online.


Submissions for this round of CTB are due Thursday, July 31, 2014. Anyone can join in the Cook the Books fun by reading and blogging about the book and cooking up a dish inspired by its contents. Let me know when your entry post is up by commenting on this post and/or sending me an email at: debinhawaii@gmail.com.

New to Cook the Books? Check out our About and Guidelines pages or leave a question in the comments on this post. 

Bon appétit

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Roundup of Persian Cuisine Inspired by Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas

It's time to lay the virtual table with sumptuous and colorful linens for our Persian feast, inspired by our April/May 2014 book selection, Firoozeh Dumas' memoir Funny in Farsi. We had not yet explored the cuisine of Iran and its Persian heritage here at Cook the Books, so this account of the author's childhood experiences in Southern California as an Iranian-American gave us just the opportunity.


Join me now in sampling some of the blog posts and inspired dishes created by the Cook the Books participants:

Camilla at Culinary Adventures with Camilla reports that she loved the book so much she read it twice!  Here's a quote from Camilla's post:
I chuckled at her characterization of Berkeley. Having lived there for 5 years for college, I would agree with her assessment - Berkeley wasn't just any armpit, it was an armpit in need of a shave and a shower, an armpit full of well-read people.... Don't get me wrong, I love Berkeley. But her characterization is accurate. I think that's where her humor succeeds. She tells it like it is.
Camilla notes that Iranians use rhubarb to add sour elements to savory dishes and she followed up on this aspect with a beautiful Radish, Rhubarb and Strawberry Salad.


Over at Kahakai Kitchen, Cook the Books Cohost Deb relates her experiences with the Iranian family of one of her college roommates and offers her comments about our book selection, including this tidbit: 
If you have a family that you love but that sometimes embarrasses you, you have traveled or spent time in/with another culture or country, or even if you just grew up in America, you'll recognize and connect with the author's experiences and enjoy this book.   
  Deb's Persian-inspired contribution to our feast is a fragrant Chickpea and Herb Soup with Eggplant.


Debra of Eliot's Eats, our newest Cook the Books Cohost, shared many snippets from the book, including this humorous passage:
Asking my father to ask the waitress the definition of “sloppy Joe” or "Tater Tots” was no problem. His translations, however were highly suspect. Waitresses would spend several minutes responding to my father’s questions, and these responses, in turn, would be translated as “She doesn’t know.” Thanks to my father’s translations, we stayed away from hot dogs, catfish, and hush puppies, and no amount of caviar in the sea would have convinced us to try mud pie.  (8)
Debra wisely chose to bring a luscious dessert to our feast: Persian Ice Cream, perfumed with saffron and rosewater, paired with a slice of Chocolate Bundt Cake.


The writer behind Briciole, Simona, the final Cohost in our Cook the Books quartet, did not relish our featured book as much as others did, noting:
I expect a memoir to go beyond a series of vignettes and give the individual experience a universal flavor. This did not happen for me with Funny in Pharsi.
 Simona made a vibrantly-colored, Persian-inspired, Black Beluga Lentil and Vegetable Soup.

Alicia over at the Foodycat blog enjoyed the book, noting:
A warmly funny memoir of her life growing up as an Iranian immigrant to America, I found this a very pleasant read. Even the parts that had the potential to be quite painful were told with a kindness and generosity of spirit that I found really winning.
Foodycat  made an aromatic meal of Lamb and Sour Cherry Meatballs, Tomato Salad with Pomegranate Mayonnaise, Saffron Rice and Carrot Salad. How transporting!


Back at The Crispy Cook, I wrote about how I loved Dumas' descriptions of her lovable, dreamer dad, Kazem.
He is such an interesting mixture of intellect and childish enthusiasm. He was a petroleum engineer back in Abadan, Iran, and later earned a Fulbright Scholarship to continue his graduate education in the U.S. It was during his American sojourn that one of his professors took him on a road trip to Princeton where he met (and flummoxed) Albert Einstein. After launching into a endless monologue of his American experiences, Einstein was rendered somewhat speechless. Or perhaps he took a mental vacation to hone his Theory of Relativity during Kazem’s "year's allotment of conversation". 
Like Alicia, I also had Persian meatballs on my mind, though mine were spiced with cumin, coriander and sumac.
Next we have Delaware Girl Eats' reflections about the book:
As a lifelong East Coaster, California seems to be a world unto itself, so I could relate to the author’s lighthearted stories of her bewildered encounters with California traditions. Most of all, I enjoyed her stories about family food traditions.  I loved her depiction of the Persian kitchen, marked by the constant desire to feed the people you love, whether they are hungry or not.
A refreshing Shiraz Salad with Tomatoes and Cucumbers is her addition to our Persian feast.


To round things up, we have a Claudia's insights about the book from her blog Honey From Rock:
It was indeed funny, lively and insightful as well.  Moving to America at the age of 7, back in 1972, and popped right into public school, was an eye-opening experience for a small girl, especially for one who did not speak English. What she remembers from that first day - "The bathrooms were clean and the people were very, very kind."  But you have to read the whole story to appreciate.
Claudia made the dish Lamb in Pomegranate-Cardamom Sauce, which unhappily did not live up to expectations.


Our next Cook the Books selection will be The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, by Jacques Pepin. Deb of Kahakai Kitchen will be our CTB host and deadlines for posts are due July 31, 2014. Come join us in reading, blogging and cooking up this great book!

-Rachel, The Crispy Cook