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Monday, May 4, 2015

Novel Food with Italo Calvino: Hurricanes Served with Minestrone

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino is a little weird, fantastic, and strange adventure!

Why did I take so wildly to Calvino's captivating story world in the trees? I had to sit down at the base of chestnut tree to figure it out. Trees have been both my friend and my enemy. They scared the ever loving crepe myrtle out of me during Hurricane Fran. But once we cleared away the gracious and terrifying fallen oaks, we built C'est si Bon! Cooking School.

So good things and cooking schools can come out of the trees, hurricanes, and other tragedies.

If you have ever wanted to abandon your life and just escape, keep reading, though some might argue that escape is not the terrain of the Baron In The Trees.

I have been through those kinds of time. Haven't you?

But, maybe I should back up a bit, this love for Italo goes back -- for years I had a fable by Calvino posted above my desk, The Distance of the Moon. It inspired my return to explore and gave me permission to return to wondering. It was a deeply personal story too as it spoke to the drowning tragedy of my brother, Jeremy, in a way I could understand; in a fable.

That event in my life was so painful that I turned it into a fable, not in order to remember it, but to transform it, The Distance of the Moon. I'm sure I am not alone. Was it the tragedy that created the behavior or was the behavior and tendency always there, just activated by the tragedy? Of course I blamed myself for his death. Nobody but me knew I was actually mad at Jeremy that day. Why? Its ridiculous really, he asked me to tie back his hair every night. I was a little tired of this. I could tie back my own hair after all. I was taking care of myself. Why couldn't he? We were both eighteen. For years my emotions about the night before Jeremy drowned had a range no less than phenomenal. Guilt, rage, sadness, and despair. And what I wouldn't have given to be able to tie back Jeremy's hair today.

In our everyday life Jeremy had more practice being mad. Mad because no one would tell us the truth about who we were. Mad because things were not right at home. And the only anger I could muster up was being pissed that he asked me to tie his hair back? I had a lot to learn. Even though he's gone, he inspires me to tell the truth. Maybe I am entering my Jeremy phase.

But back to Calvino and the Baron in The Trees. Calvino writes about a world turned upside down. The story involves two brothers; Cosimo, the older, and Biaggio, the younger brother.

Battista, Cosmio's sister, is reputedly a gifted culinarian.

Pate Toast with Rat Liver
Grasshopper Claws Laid Out on a Tart
Porcupine Cooked till Rosy and Tender

Its her perverse delight in killing creatures of the forest that infuriates Cosimo, who is already aghast and finds the situation of his family deplorable.

But Battista didn't stop there, she also made jewelry out of cauliflower and hares ears, and pigs heads with lobster tongues.

Jeremy was a bit like Cosimo, the Baron in question. And as the younger sibling, I identified most with Biaggio, the one left behind to tell Cosimo, and Jeremy's story. After Cosimo refuses to eat a bowl of snails, that his sister had prepared in a revolting way, Cosimo takes his principles and makes his life in the trees. And there he lived until the surprising end of his life.

"Cosimo had raised his head too and was looking fixedly at the balloon. At the second when the anchor rope passed near him, gave one of those leaps he so often used to do in his youth, gripped the rope, with his feet on the anchor and his body in a hunch, and so we saw him fly away, taken by the wind, scarce braking the course of the balloon, and vanished out to sea.."

In that strange way of fables, just as the winds took Cosimo away, so it seems, the winds of Hurricane Fran brought Jeremy back to me.

Mentioned in the beginning of the novel is cold minestrone, but which you can serve hot, and I'm pretty sure you'll like much better than a macabre recipe of Battista's.



minestrone verde with red pesto

The Baron In The Trees is set in Liguria which is famous for its pesto. This red pesto, made with sun-dried tomatoes is good when basil hasn't quite come into season yet. Also, calling for leeks, fava beans and asparagus as it does makes this a perfect spring time minestrone.

2 oz dried haricot or cannellini beans, soaked overnight
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 celery stick, finely chopped
2 leeks, cut into rounds
3 canned san marzano tomatoes, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
1 tablespoon chopped basil
1 tablespoon chopped chives
4 oz French or green beans, cut into 1 inch pieces
4 oz asparagus, cut into 1 inch pieces
5 oz shelled broad beans, or lima beans, defrosted if frozen, skinned
4 oz shelled peas, fresh or frozen
1 litre vegetable or chicken stock
3 oz long-grain rice
6 oz fresh spinach
salt and pepper
2 oz parmesan cheese, finely grated, to serve

red pesto:
2 garlic cloves chopped
1 oz basil leaves

3 tablespoons pine nuts
8 sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained
4 fl oz extra virgin olive oil
1 oz grated parmesan cheese

drain and rinse the dried beans, place in a saucepan and cover with cold water. bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 45 minutes-1 hour or until tender. remove from the heat and set aside in their cooking liquid.

make the pesto.
place the garlic, basil, pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes in a food processor or blender and process until finely chopped. with the motor running, gradually add the extra virgin olive oil in a thin stream until blended. scrape into a bowl, stir in the parmesan and season to taste with salt and pepper. set aside.


continue with the soup.
heat the oil in a large saucepan, add the garlic, celery, and leeks and cook gently for 5-10 minutes until softened. add the tomatoes with half of the herbs, season with salt and pepper and cook for about 12-15 minutes until the tomatoes are soft.


add the french beans, asparagus and fresh broad beans and peas, if using. cook for 1-2 minutes, then add the stock or water. bring to the boil and boil rapidly for 10 minutes. add the rice, the cook haricot or cannellini beans, and their cooking liquid and the spinach (and the frozen broad beans and peas, if using) and cook for 10 minutes. adjust the seasoning to taste and stir in the remaining herbs. serve each bowl of soup with a spoonful of pesto and sprinkle with the parmesan. 





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