12 July 2010

Off the Shelf: A Thousand Days in Venice

When we no longer have good cooking in the world, we will have no literature, nor high and sharp intelligence, nor friendly gatherings, no social harmony.
~ Marie-Antoine Carême


R
ain knocks insistently on my bedroom windows and thunder shakes the house. I curl deeper into the thick, cotton counterpane as lightening illuminates the pages of A Thousand Days in Venice. I had purchased it awhile ago until, distracted by life and other books, I put it aside and forgot all about it. Armed with more time and opportunity to read on my commute, and a kinder work schedule, I picked it up again and promptly fell in love all over again with Marlena de Blasi’s romance with Venice, its food and her life with a blueberry-eyed Venetian.

She writes with a comfortable passion ~ one that swells and sighs with the rhythm of every day life in Venice. Her description of the farmers’ market in Rialto is especially captivating. She walks “under a tunnel and out into the ruga, stepping directly into the dazzle of the market” and I step out with her, shielding my eyes against the morning sun. As she makes her way past the stalls, I feel the hot Venetian sun on my face and hear the sounds of the market all around me. The hypnotic rhythm of the rain outside my window fades into the background and I halt with Marlena

. . . in front of a table so sumptuously laid as to be waiting for Caravaggio. I move slowly, touching when I dare, trying a smile now and then. . . .I walk to the pescheria, fish market, a clamorous hall full of the stinging, dizzying perfumes of sea salt and fish blood. . . .I look in on the macellerie, butchers, who are cutting nearly transparent steaks behind their macabre curtains of rabbits, wild and tame. . . .
Earlier in the book Marlena talks about her frustration in understanding her Fernando and his Venetian ways: he cannot understand her need, her intense desire, to cook. After a scrumptious meal that includes batter-dipped squash blossoms, stuffed breast of veal braised in white wine, chilled yellow tomato soup with a wedge of Taleggio and a dessert of white figs and Maggion meringues, he says:

You mustn’t think I expect you to set a table like this each evening. . . I’m not telling you not to cook. . .What I’m saying is that your idea of everyday cooking is my idea of festival cooking. . . .Why is it so peculiar that I want to cook, really cook, every day?. . I cook because I love to cook. . . .


It has been months since I cooked a full five or six course dinner. Working a regular nine to five job and having a life just do not leave much time for “festival cooking.” And I certainly had not felt like cooking even a three course dinner for just myself.

Reading A Thousand Days re-awoke long buried desire. The very act of cooking brings me great joy, but in order for that joy to be fully realized, I have to cook for someone. My friend JB [a 3rd year law student] and his wife wanted to meet a UVA 1st year law student to swap stories and clerkship advice. Ah! A perfect excuse to cook! After much inner debate, I came up with the following Dinner for Eight:

Prosciutto & Melon
Feral Boar Prosciutto, local cantaloupe

Corn & Crab Chowder
Local sweet corn, Chesapeake Bay crabs

Heirloom Tomato Salad
Fresh, locally picked heirloom tomatoes, goat’s milk, pine nuts,
drizzled with lemon-basil dressing

Filet Mignon
Organic beef sautéed in a sherry and mushroom butter sauce, served with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus

Lemon-Ginger & Mojito Sorbets
with ginger thins

All ingredients came from the local farmers’ market, Whole Foods, and America Seafood, a local seafood shop ~ all organic and fresh. The scent of the small cantaloupes was an intoxicating mixture ~ musky, earthy, sunny, ripe. The just picked heirloom tomatoes from Lois Produce practically burst their skin to get at the lemon-basil dressing I made from scratch ~ and no wonder! I have not seen basil plants grow so beautiful and bushy ~ especially amazing given how dry and hot this summer has been so far. I bought enough to make a mountain of pesto ~ my favorite summer dish. At the Mushroom Stand, I picked Honey Mushrooms purely for their looks [so shallow, I know!] and Maitake Mushrooms for their flavor and shock appeal.

Serving a different wine for almost every course would smooth the flow of conversation so that it was not all legalese: Northgate Vineyard’s Apple Wine with the prosciutto, Viognier with the chowder and the salad, Chambourcin with the filets and Fabbioli Cellars’ Raspberry Merlot with the sorbets from Sinplicity.

The last piece of china washed, the last wine glass gleaming, is put back on the shelf. The dining room table is returned to it’s usual table-for-four state. I crawl into bed, tired but happy. Another successful dinner! I fall asleep thinking that Marlena de Blasi would approve.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela
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