What are you reading now? I am finishing The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, a very interesting novel. It brought back memories of studying Dante's Divine Comedy in school. I have not read it since, but episodes from it came back to mind easily while reading the novel.
Thus began the announcement I wrote for edition #14 of Novel Food, the culinary/literary event that Lisa of Champaign Taste and I started in the fall of 2007. Reading about Dante means thinking about Florence, the city where he was born, that he loved, and from which he was banned for political reasons, an event that forced him to be a guest elsewhere and learn "how salty other people's bread tastes" (Par. XVII, 58-59).
I honestly have not taken Dante in my hands after finishing high school. I am still not sure that making students spend hours over the poem is the best way to make them appreciate it. What is certain is that while my memory of pages from Purgatorio and Paradiso is nil, I can recite lines from Inferno, where the characters are deeply human in their frailties and sins. In particular, it is difficult to forget the opening words:
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
or the ominous words Dante reads upon the entrance to Inferno, which ends with the famous line
Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'intrate.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!
(Longfellow's translation comes from this page: for each section of the original, click on Current English link at the bottom to see Longfellow's translation. What I like about this site is that you can also see the illustrations for the poem from Gustave Doré, Salvador Dali and Sandro Botticelli, and also maps of Inferno, which is divided into circles.)
One more word on Dante. In an enjoyable article published earlier this year on the English newspaper The Independent, the poet is number 13 among Italy's top 15 cultural exports. (However, I must correct the Italian in #2: it is Il dolce far niente.)
On to the novel: The Dante Club is set in Boston and Cambridge, MA, almost 600 years after Dante's birth (1265) and the protagonists are well-known literary figures of the time, starting from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, at work on the first translation of Dante's Inferno (the first book of the Divina Commedia) for the American public. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., James Russell Lowell and publisher James Thomas Fields are the other main characters, together with Nicholas Rey, the first black Boston policeman and of course the murderer, who, as the book proceeds, gets nicknamed Lucifer.
The Dante Club revolves around a series of gruesome murders. The author does a great job in maintaining the suspense, even when pieces of the puzzle start to get clear to the reader. The cold Boston winter contributes to the creation of a nightmarish atmosphere that keeps the reader hooked until the last chapter.
The story is gripping and well-told and the cast of characters includes interesting men and women. The underlying thread is the completion of the translation in time to be submitted to the celebration of Dante's anniversary. As always, when I choose a mystery for my post, I am afraid to reveal more and in so doing spoil the enjoyment. (This page has the full plot, so don't go there if you plan on reading the mystery.)
Inspired by the book, I first thought of replicating a medieval recipe (like I did with a Roman recipe in the previous version of Novel Food), but instead, as I was thinking about Dante in exile, wandering around in the fall and winter, I thought about chestnuts (which, turned into flour, are used in Tuscany to make a cake called castagnaccio), gathered in the woods of central Italy and mushrooms, another product of the woods. And so I decided to share here a dish that is a personal elaboration of a recipe a dear relative described to me a few years ago. The most important change I made to it was substituting the original chickpeas (ceci) with beans. Instead of using Italian cannellini, I reached for locally grown canario beans, but cannellini would of course work just as nicely.
- 1/2 cup of dry beans (canario or cannellini), soaked overnight and then cooked as described below
- 1/2 lb chestnuts
- a bay leaf
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 large onion (about 3/4 lb), chopped
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary needles (rosmarino)
- 1 lb white mushrooms (or a mix of various kinds: it would be great if it included some wild mushrooms), cleaned and sliced
- sea salt and freshly milled black pepper, to taste
The way I cook beans for further use comes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison (Beans with Aromatics). After soaking half a cup of dry beans for several hours or overnight in enough water to cover them by about an inch (I use two cups), empty the whole bowl into a saucepan and add
- Half of a small onion (or a quarter of a medium one), halved
- A bay leaf
- A small clove of garlic, sliced
- A couple of sprigs of fresh parsley
Bring the water to a lively boil quickly, and keep it there for five minutes, then turn down the heat and let the beans simmer, covered, until they are ready. How long this takes depends on the type of beans and their freshness. Let them cool in their broth, then remove the aromatics and discard them. Let the beans rest in their cooking broth until ready to use.
Besides the beans, cook the chestnut in advance. With a pointed blade, make a slit in the shell without cutting through the meat. Place chestnuts in a saucepan, cover abundantly with water and add the bay leaf. Bring to a boil and simmer until they are tender. Peel a large one and verify that it is cooked. Keep the chestnuts in the cooking water and take out one at a time to peel. Use a sharp knife with a pointed blade to remove the shell, then the skin. Set aside. (If a chestnut breaks, while being handled, it is fine, as it will be chopped later anyway.)
To prepare the dish, generously spray a deep sauté pan with olive oil and warm it up. Add the onion, garlic and rosemary and cook gently for 12-15 minutes, stirring often. When the onion is soft and translucent, turn up the heat slightly and add the mushrooms. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring a few times. Add the drained beans and 1/4 cup of their broth, cover and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Coarsely chop the chestnuts and add them to the pan. Simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, mix thoroughly and serve hot.
I always serve this dish alongside polenta. And I will soon fulfill my promise to devote a post to this traditional Italian dish. I start making polenta before I start cooking the dish, so that, by the time the former is ready, about 50 minutes later, the latter is also ready. In the photo above, the accompaniment is leftover polenta, sliced and warmed up in an oiled skillet on both sides, so a crisp skin forms.
Dante could not have eaten polenta as we know it, since during his lifetime corn (mais or granturco) was yet unknown in Europe. However, the Greeks, Romans and others who lived in Italy in ancient times made puls by cooking farro, millet (miglio) and other grains or chestnut flour in water or milk, then added legumes, vegetables, eggs and cheese for a nutritious meal. I imagine Dante ate versions of those dishes, so here is another connection.
This is my contribution to the 14th edition of Novel Food, the literary/culinary event that Lisa of Champaign Taste and I have started some time ago (this time I am hosting solo as Lisa is taking a break from blogging).
This post contains the roundup of the event.
The lovely canario beans make this post suitable for My Legume Love Affair 41, the current edition of the popular, legume-centered event created by Susan, The Well-Seasoned Cook, and hosted this month by Simona of briciole (that is, me).
This post contains the first part of the roundup and a link to the second part.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post
or launch the funghi, fagioli e castagne audio file [mp3].
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