Monthly Archives: May 2019

Unto Us a Son is Given


shopping 2In Leon’s latest Brunetti installment, Guido takes on an investigation for his father-in-law, Count Falier, once again walking a fine line between family interests and pursuit of crime someone is murdered. As in all Commisario Brunetti books, the reader watches as Guido attempts to serve justice in an astoundingly corrupt environment. We may not always agree with his tactics, but have to concede that his motivation is pure, ethical and just, if not always legal, or “by the books.”  In this volume, Brunetti is rereading “The Trojan Women” by Euripedes. Thinking about the spoils of war that created the plight of the Trojan women, he sees a contemporary parallel in the thousands of women from eastern Europe flooding into the west: living spoils of war, forced into prostitution. Reflecting on the motivations for war in modern times, Guido contrasts the ancients. The Trojans and Achaeans were seeking glory, fame, and honor for their name in perpetuity, unlike today’s wars, motivated by greed in the form of land and spoils. Whatever the motivation, there is one clear group in both ancient and modern times that suffers, powerless to control their own destiny.

I marvel at how Leon has crafted the relationship between Guido and his wife, Paola. They are equals, best friends, and really know and understand one another. The children, Chiara and Raffi, older now and more involved with their friends, do not play as large a role as they have in past books, except at mealtimes. Everyone comes home for mama’s cooking. Although, with Chiara declaring vegetarianism, now Paola has had to provide meat-free options for her daughter alongside Guido’s penchant for vitello. Reading a Leon book is like spending an evening with old friends, taking comfort in the constancy of their character that provides a respite of the familiar in an often hostile world.


Henry James, Paola’s beloved author, wrote his novella, The Aspern Papers while visiting friends in Venice. The action in the novel was modeled on the Palazzo Soranzo Capello and Gardens on Rio Marin.

The photo is from a website called Pictures from Italy (Est. 2001) by David Lown


When Guido misses a meal, you know there’s a compelling reason. His motivation for getting through his days at the Questura is sometimes as simple as looking forward to whatever Paola is preparing for lunch or the evening meal, and the pleasure of her and the children’s company during it. On the day that Brunettie discovered who killed Berta, best friend of Count Falier’s best friend, Gonzalo, Paola was serving peperonata with polenta. In a timely coincidence, my husband and I had just watched an episode on the Food Channel, where Lidia Bastianich prepared peperonata with her granddaughter, serving it on crostini. This is her recipe, except for the polenta.

Peperonata (Stewed Savory Peppers) with Creamy Polenta

¼ C extra-virgin olive oil
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
2 medium onions, sliced to 1/2 inch thick
6 small (or 4 large) bell peppers (red, yellow, and orange), cut into 1-inch strips
1 tsp kosher salt
½ C pitted oil-cured black olives
¼ C drained capers in brine
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
One 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, crushed by hand

Heat the olive oil in a large straight-sided skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the anchovies. Cook and stir until they dissolve into the oil, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the onions, and cook until they begin to wilt, about 4 minutes. Add the peppers, and season with the salt. Add the olives, capers, and red pepper flakes, and get everything sizzling; then add the tomatoes, slosh out the can with 1 cup water, and add that to the pan. Cover, and cook until the peppers begin to droop, about 10 minutes.

Uncover, and cook until the peppers and onions are tender and sauce is thick and flavorful, about 10 to 15 minutes more.

Creamy Polenta

1 C cornmeal                                         ½ C Parm or ricotta, or both (opt.)
1 to 2 T butter
4 C water
1 tsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
Salt and pepper

Bring 4 cups water to boil in a medium sauce pan. When the water boils, whisk in the 1 cup corn meal in a slow steady stream, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Continue whisking until the polenta begins to thicken (around 1 to 2 minutes). Add 1 teaspoon kosher salt.

Reduce the heat so that the polenta bubbles slowly. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes until the cornmeal loses its raw flavor (taste every so often to check).

When the polenta is complete, turn off the heat and add 1 to 2 tablespoons butter, and more kosher salt and pepper to taste. You can cover it to keep it warm before serving. If the polenta becomes too thick, you can stir in a bit of milk or water to loosen it up.

For even more flavor, you can stir in some cheese with the butter in Step 3.



A delicious dish, but for a meat-eating audience, include a protein



The Parisian


shoppingI fell in love with this book early on in my reading. It was rich in history, (a time period I know little about) cultural references, cultural differences, and exquisite writing. Midhat Kamal was the son of a wealthy textile merchant in Nablus, a town in Ottoman Palestine. He was educated at a boarding school in Constantinople and went off to France to study medicine in 1914. It truly was culture shock for him, in spite of his having taken French in school, he knew nothing of French culture, save for the somewhat jaded perceptions shared by Faruq, a fellow passenger on the ship to Marseilles. In Montpellier, he boarded in the home of Doctor Molineau, a member of the medical school faculty, and his daughter, Jeannette. Predictably, Midhat fell in love with Jeannette. The two concealed the nature of their relationship until a shocking turn of events opened Midhat’s eyes to the inherent French prejudice towards Arabs in general, and Midhat specifically. As the story unfolds, it’s sad that so frequently in fiction and real life, people’s destinies are changed irrevocably by what is not said. The book sort of fell apart for me in the third part, with some plot points that didn’t make sense to me, but it didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of the book. It was an ambitious undertaking for a debut novelist and the beginning of a wonderful literary career.

THE BEAUTY: When Midhat returned to Nablus after college, he spent a lot of time with his cousin, Jamil. At the beginning of April, they took a three hour bus ride to Jerusalem for Nebi Musa, a seven-day long festival celebrated annually by Palestinian Muslims beginning on the Friday before Good Friday in the old Greek Orthodox calendar. While watching a dervish dance, Midhat experienced something close to joy, but deeper and more serene. At that moment, a line dance began, and the dervish gave way to a line of village men, grasping elbows and hopping up and down in the dabke.

THE FOOD: In preparation for her grandson ‘s return from Paris, Um Taher enlisted the help of her neighbor and friend to prepare stuffed zucchini for the ladies’ reception to celebrate his return.

Stuffed Zucchini (Kousa Mahshi)
Yield:  8-10 servings, allow the equivalent of 1 zucchini per serving)

8-10 zucchini (the zucchini should each be 8-12” long and ~1 ½” in diameter)
1 ½ C medium-grain rice
2 T olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2~3 cloves garlic, minced
2 C peeled and diced tomatoes, with their juices (you can use fresh or canned)
3 oz tomato paste
1 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp salt, divided
¾ tsp ground black pepper, divided
2 beef bouillon cube
2 bay leaves
¼ C chopped fresh parsley
1 lb ground beef or lamb (meat that is between 80-90% lean works well)
3 T butter, melted
Fresh lemons, cut into wedges (for garnish)

Clean the zucchini and trim off the ends.  Cut each zucchini into 2 or 3 equal pieces; the number of pieces you cut the zucchini into will be determined by the zucchini’s size – each piece should be 4-5” long.  Use a sharp-tipped vegetable peeler to hollow out each piece, being careful to leave one end of the zucchini intact.  The zucchini shells should be ~.5 cm thick when you’re done hollowing them out.

In a 5-quart pot with a lid, heat the olive oil over medium heat; add the onion and sauté for 6-8 minutes, or until softened; add the garlic and sauté another minute. Remove ¾ of the onion/garlic mixture and reserve in a separate bowl. For the tomato broth, to the pot, add the tomatoes, tomato paste, ½ tsp salt, ¼ tsp pepper, bouillon, bay leaves, fresh parsley, and enough water to fill the pot so that it is somewhere between 2/3 to 3/4 of the way full. Heat the tomato broth over low heat until it comes to a simmer.

For the zucchini filling, mix together the reserved onion and garlic, raw ground meat, uncooked rice, melted butter, 1½ tsp salt, ½ tsp pepper, and allspice. Stuff each zucchini shell with the meat and rice mixture; pack the mixture down so that when turned upside-down the mixture doesn’t fall out of the zucchini; leave a gap of ~¾” at the top of each zucchini because the rice will expand when cooking.

Add the stuffed zucchini to the simmering tomato broth and cook with the lid on for 60-75 minutes. If the zucchini doesn’t all fit in the pot because there’s too much liquid, you can just ladle some out. Check the zucchini after an hour so as not to overcook by piercing the skin with the tip of a sharp knife. Serve the zucchini garnished with fresh lemon, alongside the tomato broth, or you can eat the tomato broth like soup.

The dish was great, and in my delirium of deliciousness, I forgot to take a picture. It was well worth the effort of hollowing out the zucchini.


Straight Man


220px-StraightManI heard a trusted reviewer say that this book was laugh-out-loud funny, and though I had unsuccessfully tried a Russo book before with a similar claim, I decided to give this a try. In fairness, rare is the occasion that I, (and I believe most readers out there) truly emit audible sounds of  mirth in response to reading a book. This was no exception. But while I may not have made noise, I made note to myself many times of the cleverness of a thought, or a turn of phrase, with the overall effect being: this is a very amusing, witty, dare I say ironic, if irony also incorporates good-natured sarcasm, book. In his life, the main character, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., plays the straight man. His friends know that he is never serious, and can be a real jerk in service of his humor at their expense. And yet, they are loyal to him, all the while telling him what an ass he is. He’s blessed with a beautiful wife who understands and loves him, even though she recognizes the many ways that he is not present in their shared life. The action takes place in rural Pennsylvania where “Hank” is an English professor, serving as interim head of the department during a serious fiscal threat to the livelihood of his colleagues and himself. Did he cut a deal with administration? Did he make a list ranking his fellow academics according to their usefulness in the department? These are the questions that everyone buzzed about. In the end, Devereaux is true to himself, and despite rampant departmental gossip and speculation, his friends and colleagues finally recognize what they should have known all along about him. A very satisfying read!


My favorite character, after Henry, of course, is Mr. Purdy, Henry’s mother’s landlord, who is smitten with the 73 year-old- her mastery of the English language, and her overall state of preservedness (for her age). He tells Henry that “She’s a real aristocat.” He goes to great lengths to impress her, quizzing Henry at every opportunity about “what his ma likes,” and buying a red pick up truck with a stereo sound system and “antibrakes” to impress her. Mr. Purdy speaks like the BFG in Roald Dahl’s genius children’s book, The BFG (The Big Friendly Giant). Malapropisms Are Them. While bragging to Henry about his experience with the young man who sold him the truck he’s proud of the fact that he did not pay the sticker price. “I chewed him way down from there.” He goes on to add that the salesman “Put brand new tires on it too. Radials, not them recraps.” I could go on, but you get the idea!


There was not a lot of food in the book: a pastrami sandwich, ordered, but not delivered; a prime rib, rare; raw clams with lemon. I initially discarded a sandwich that Henry’s mother made for him, hoping for better pickings as the book progressed, but ended up going back to it. Henry visited his mother who lives in the same town, one afternoon. He initially declined her offer of a pimiento cheese sandwich because his mother is not known for her culinary extravagance, having responded to her husband’s leaving her for a younger woman by throwing herself into an austerity program in all areas of ther life, including food. When he realized that this was his only opportunity to eat until much later in the day, he accepted the offer, bracing himself for two slices of bread joined by the slimmest spread of cheese posssible. When I googled Pennsylvania  food, pimiento cheese came up! I have not been left for a younger woman, so I used a generous amount of cheese for each sandwich.

Pimiento Cheese
Yield: about 1 pound

8 oz sharp Cheddar cheese, grated In a food processor (NOT pre-grated)
2 oz cream cheese, softened
7-8 oz jarred roasted red peppers, finely diced (food processor)
3 T high quality mayonnaise
½ tsp minced Aleppo pepper (or red pepper flake)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 slices thick, hearty bread

In a large bowl, stir together cheeses, red peppers, mayonnaise, and Aleppo pepper. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Spread one slice wth cheese spread, cover with the second piece, slice and serve. You can add lettuce and tomato if desired. Alternatively, you may grill both sides of the sandwich, slice and serve. Either way, yum.



It doesn’t look like much, but that was the point.  It’s supposed to look like the sandwiches Henry’s mother made, with the cheese making a limited appearance on the bread.