Monday, October 28, 2013

PIZZA QUATTRO STAGIONE for 'A VERY PRIVATE GENTLEMAN"



I thought I knew all there was to know about pizza.  After all, I can make really good pizza, and I have been making it for years. (The secret of good pizza is in the dough.  If you have a good dough, chances are you'll have a good pizza).  But, surprise, I found out something new about pizza.  There exits a topping I didn't know of. No, it's not ham and pineapple.  It's quatro stagione, or four seasons pizza.  Quatro stagione pizza is topped with:

Marinated artichokes for springtime...

Tomato slices and fresh mozzarella for summer.  Sliced basil goes on after the pizza comes out of the oven.  I enjoyed slicing the basil, it gave off such a wonderful aroma...

Sauteed mushrooms and onions for autumn...

Ham, for winter.  I have three types of ham here.  Some I baked with the pizza, some I put on after the pizza came out of the oven, and some I picked on before I took this picture. So not all three types are clearly visible...

Make the pizza.  Dough, sauce, cheese.  Visually divide the pizza into four sections, and top each section accordingly.  The toppings can vary, as long as each section they are placed on represents one of the four seasons.

Bake and enjoy. Whoever thought of the concept of a four seasons pizza is a certified genius as far as I am concerned. It is a scrumptious pizza, a wonderful excuse for having a multi-topping pizza, except, in quattro stagione pizza the toppings are not piled one on top of the other, which truthfully, I find unappetizing.  Here, the toppings are artfully arranged on the pizza, giving it an air of sophistication.   And I like sophistication. Which is why I really liked reading the thriller A Very Private Gentleman, (1990), written by Martin Booth. As far as thrillers go, it reeks of sophistication. As do I. 

This is my contribution to Novel Food, the literary-culinary event hosted by Simona from Briciole. Read it, and then cook something that the reading has inspired you to prepare.  For this edition of Novel Food I enjoyed reading A Very Private Gentleman.  In one of my favorite chapters the main character takes his mistress to an out of the way restaurant where the two of them enjoy a bottle of wine and a "pizza quatro stagione." I loved the description of the event so, so much, that I wanted to be a patron at the very same countryside restaurant, ordering along with the protagonists.  


This is a thinking person's thriller, aesthetically pleasing, with an unforgettable protagonist. He is signor Farfala, thus called by the locals of the small town where he lives.  He is an artist who paints rare butterflies. Or so he pretends.  That's his cover.  In actuality, Signor Farfala, leads a life so secretive that even we, the readers, don't know his real name or nationality. He is well educated, a man of fine tastes.  He knows how to appreciate nature, art, architecture, good food and wine, good music and books, and he loves good company.  He always moves from place to place, sometimes because of work, sometimes to evade capture.  His real work is done in secret.  He is a gunsmith who crafts made-to-order weapons.  They carry a very high price tag because they are used for high level assassinations. He feels that he has helped to shape history, but now he is getting old and would like to retire.  When we meet him, he is promising that he's working on his last commission.  He likes the small Italian town where he's taken up residence, and he would like to settle there, in the company of Clara, a young student who moonlights as a prostitute in order to make ends meet. (Nothing wrong with that, right?).  Unfortunately, just as signor Farfala makes up his mind to settle down, he becomes aware that someone is after him.  And so the cat and mouse game begins... Booth's writing is clear, intelligent, tense and thought provoking.  A Very Private Gentleman is a first rate psychological thriller, a book that is hard to put down. The movie The American (2010), staring and produced by George Clooney, was based on this novel. The script has some significant differences from the novel, but both movie and book are first rate. With the release of the movie, the novel was republished under the same title as the movie.  So a very private gentleman was forced to become an American.  I don't think Martin Booth (who died in 2004), would have liked this change.  He didn't give his character a nationality, and I enjoyed trying to guess where signor Farfala could have come from.  
Martin Booth's "The American," previously published as "A Very Private Gentleman."
For the curious, that's George Clooney on the cover, aesthetically pleasing as always. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

COOKING THE BOOKS WITH THE BAKER'S DAUGHTER

Have a pretzel roll.  They are slightly salty, doughy, soft and chewy.   The next best thing to a Philly pretzel!  Plus they make a nice snack if you want to take a break from reading "The Baker's Daughter,"  the novel which is featured for this round of Cook the Books Club.


I just finished reading "The Baker's Daughter," which unfortunately was a somewhat boring novel. Unfortunate, because it deals with very interesting subjects.  But this stuff has been written about before, and with a lot more suspense and style. Nothing new brought to the table here.  The storytelling is mushy, not even as palatable as overcooked spaghetti.
Novel:  The Baker’s Daughter.  Author:  Sarah McCoy.  Premise: Two main characters, both female.  One is a pretend Nazi, the other is a pretend vegan.  Here’s a question: if you had to, which of the two women would you rather be?  You might answer “I would rather be the pretend vegan,” since upon consideration it becomes clear to you it is the more ethical choice of the two.  Hold on though.  I would recommend that you choose to be the pretend Nazi.  Because, friends, it’s the pretend Nazi character who leads the more interesting life.  For one thing she is a baker extraordinaire. For another, she learns  all about the evils of Nazism and she forsakes them.  Not only that.  She saves the life of a Jewish boy.  Not only that.  She and the Jewish boy get to bake pretzels together.  Lots of pretzels.  Not only that.  She marries an American.  Not only that.  She moves to El Paso, Texas.  Not only that.  She opens up a German bakery.  Her life is filled with adventure and experience.  As for the pretend vegan…. I just could not understand why she wanted to pretend to be a vegan.  But she was really good at it.  Pretending, I mean.  To be a vegan.  Everyone believed her.  Except for me.  I knew it all along.  That girl ate dairy.
So the dairy eating girl is named Reba, and she is a journalist.  While on the job she meets Elsie, the German bakery owner.  They become fast friends and that's when we learn how each one arrived to the point where their lives converged.  It turns out that Reba has a boyfriend, a quite virile one, who is a border control officer.  Oh yes, I wouldn’t mind meeting him, but fine, I know he’s taken.  The virile boyfriend’s job is to locate illegal aliens and send them back whence they came.  It bothers Reba that these people are hunted down and deported.  She understands their struggle to escape poverty.  Eventually, Reba's boyfriend begins to question the effectiveness of his job.  Good for you Sarah McCoy, oh author of The Baker’s Daughter, for spinning a plot that confronts this issue. But you should have tried a little harder.  To make the story telling more interesting.  
While we're on the subject of illegal immigrants, I'd like to comment that it just seems every time our economy slides down the slippery slope there comes an outcry from certain political factions to curb illegal immigration.  As though the presence or absence of illegal aliens is the driving force of our economy. They're actually necessary and good for our economy, but they are not its driving force.  The vociferous bellowing against this minority helps to detract attention from the real problem at hand. Nice political trick.  Solving nothing.  Which is inherent in that sort of politics.
Back to the novel: what McCoy has done is engage her protagonists on a quest to find emotional maturity by coming to the realization that they cannot always follow traditional wisdom.

Sarah McCoy's novel The Baker's Daughter, is the reading selection for this round of "Cook the Books Club."  Read the book and cook something which is inspired by the reading.  In my case, the choice was simple, easy, clear.  I made pretzel rolls, inspired by Elsie's pretzel making marathons. 
PRETZELS! 
I live in the Philadelphia area. Pretzels are a ubiquitous snack here. What else was I going to make but something with the word pretzel in it?  I grew up eating soft pretzels.  At school they used to cost one nickel each, but in the “fancy” shops around town they would sell for one quarter each.  I gladly paid the quarter when school was closed.  One pretzel a day, and all was right with the world.  I liked my pretzel with a thin ribbon of mustard squeezed on top. The big trick was to eat the pretzel without dripping mustard on my clean outfit.  Come summertime, kids and adults alike would line up (and still line up) to buy fruit flavored water ice, and yes, the best accompaniment for water ice was and is a soft pretzel.  It’s a Philly thing. Pretzels were introduced to our neck of the woods in the late eighteenth century by German immigrants who began arriving here at that time. Since then, the soft pretzel became a Philadelphia tradition. Yes, thanks to a large population with German background, Philadelphia and its surrounding counties became the birthplace of the American pretzel industry.  In fact, even to this day, Pennsylvania produces the majority of our nation’s pretzels.  

To make pretzel rolls I used a recipe by Alton Brown from the Food Network.  It's a very good recipe, with a how-to video included.  I made the dough, then shaped it into rolls rather than pretzels. After all, pretzel rolls are quite a popular thing these days. And no, I will not make actual pretzels at home. Why mess with tradition?  I always buy my pretzels at the corner pretzel store.  I don't even mind that the price has gone up since I was a schoolgirl. Now they cost “two for a dollar,”  or seventy five cents for one, but... the mustard is still free.  

This has been my contribution to "Cook the Books Club."  Read the book, cook something delicious inspired by the book, then blog about it.  Submissions are due every two months, and a winner is chosen from among the participants.  If you like to read and cook, this is the internet club you should join!