‘Should not the supreme aim of gastronomy be to untangle the confusion of ideas that confront mankind, and to provide this unfortunate biped with some guidance as to how he should conduct himself and his appetites?’ This is Mark Crick – the ‘literary ventriloquist’ – paraphrasing the Marquis de Sade in his book Kafka’s Soup. A very amusing read if you love to, uh, read, and love to cook.
He offers a list of classic recipes, but presents each one in the style of an iconic writer: Jane Austen’s Tarragon Eggs (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that eggs, kept for too long, go off’); Raymond Chandler’s Lamb with Dill Sauce (‘In this town the grease always rises to the top, so I strained the juice and skimmed off the fat’); Franz Kafka’s Miso Soup (‘The sound of the kettle boiling brought K’s attention back to the food, and at the same time he noticed a jar of fermented miso and a block of silken tofu, perhaps left by his landlady’); and Irvine Welsh’s chocolate cake (‘Ah drop a packet of butter intae the pan and light the flame beneath it. As it melts, ah pour on the sugar – the grains dissolve cleanly, it’s good fuckin shite’), to name a few.
Yesterday, I kind of understood what he (Mark Crick, via the Marquis de Sade) was trying to say. It was one of those occasions when the ideal circumstances converge in one afternoon to create a kind of nirvana: simple, sumptuous food; gorgeous wine (just enough for a warm glow, not too much); old friends; laughter and conversation that rolls around the table endlessly; and dappled sunlight that doesn’t so much play as fornicate on the white table cloth... Everything is harmonious, right with the world, in its proper place (cue violins). I’m sure you know what I mean. Events like these are too rare, but I guess that’s part of their nature – they’re spontaneous, and can’t be planned. But when they do happen, boy, they certainly help to ‘untangle the confusion of ideas that confront mankind’. At least, they do for me.
On this particular occasion I tried my hand at panzanella. The Guinea Pig gave me a copy of The River Café Cook Book for my birthday, and this was the recipe I chose to make first. It was a beautiful, tasty summer salad, but in retrospect I would have broken the bread up into smaller pieces, as I believe is done in other recipes. I also made Molly Wizenberg’s Chickpea Salad with Lemon and Parmesan, only I added slivers of courgette as well, just because I think they’re pretty.
I served a platter of sliced spicy salami and prosciutto di Parma, but the salads were the stars.
I’ve copied the River Café recipe almost verbatim below, but I must note that Ruth and Rose (the authors) both insist you use salted capers and salted, filleted anchovies, neither of which I could find at my usual delis. I used tinned anchovies and capers in brine, and thought they were perfectly adequate (I imagine, though, that the salted versions are preferable if you can get hold of them).
Before I go, let’s hear some more from Mr Crick, via Raymond Chandler (humour me): ‘I sipped on my whiskey sour, ground my cigarette on the chopping board and watched a bug trying to crawl out of the basin. I needed a table at Maxim’s, a hundred bucks and a gorgeous blonde; what I had was a leg of lamb and no clues.’ Teehee.
Panzanella is a traditional Tuscan salad. At its most simple, it’s just strong white bread, green peppery olive oil and delicious ripe summer tomatoes. The addition of peppers, anchovies, olives and capers make it more delicious and interesting.
Serves 6 to 8
3 stale ciabatta loaves
1 kg fresh plum tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed to a paste with a little sea salt
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Tuscan extra virgin olive
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 red peppers
3 yellow peppers
2 fresh chillies (optional)
100g capers, rinsed
150g black olives
1 large bunch basil
1. Cut the bread into rough, thick slices, and place in a bowl.
2. Skin, halve and seed the tomatoes into a sieve over a bowl to retain the tomato juice. Season the juice with the garlic and some black pepper, then add 250ml olive oil and 2 to 3 tablespoons of the red wine vinegar. Pour the seasoned tomato juices over the bread and toss until the bread has absorbed all the liquid. Depending on the staleness of the bread, more liquid may be required, in which case add more olive oil.
4. Grill the peppers whole until blackened all over, then skin, seed and cut into eighths lengthways. If using, grill the chillies until blackened, then skin, seed and chop finely.
Rinse the salt from the capers (if using salted) and soak in the remaining red wine vinegar.
5. In a large dish, make a layer of some of the soaked bread, and top with some of the other ingredients, then cover with another layer of bread, and continue until all the bread and other ingredients have been used up. The final layer should have peppers, tomatoes, capers, anchovies and olives all visible. Leave for an hour at room temperature before serving with a little more extra virgin olive oil.