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by Ruth Taber
A cookbook for “all book lovers and lovers of food” is the way Myra Kornfeld and Stephen Massimilla describe their newest creation: “Cooking with the Muse – A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare.”
Quoting the late great chef Roger Vergé, who described a cook as someone “creative, marrying ingredients in the way a poet marries words,” the authors have gone much further – they’ve “married” centuries of poetry and literature with a delectable collection of seasonal recipes.
Before moving to the kitchen, find a comfortable chair, put your feet up and enjoy the authors’ introduction: “A Brief History of the Poetry of Food.” Who knew that the pursuit of food had been such a problem for members of Odysseus’ crew, as recorded in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” Members of Odysseus’ crew were fed a fruit by the Lotus Eaters during their travels that caused them to became addicts and forget about returning home. (Interesting corollary: my mom always said don’t take candy from strangers!)
Poets in ancient Rome wrote about the virtues of farming, and food was an important component in their writings on sex, family and religion. The Roman poet Ovid wrote about taste and the aphrodisiac qualities of grapes, olives, arugula, nuts and honey. Poetry in the Bible describes food’s sensual qualities, especially in “The Song of Songs.” The two lovers “eagerly anticipate their marriage, comparing their features to delectable edibles”; the man’s cheeks are like a “bed of spices,” and the woman’s temples are compared to “halves of a pomegranate.”
Kornfeld, a chef, educator, nutritionist, cookbook and author, and Massimilla, an award-winning poet and critic, who teaches at Columbia University, take us on a fascinating food journey of poetry and literature, from the Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation eras in Europe to the New World and modern times. Entertaining essays and poets’ notes interspersed among their more than 150 recipes, add even more flavor. Their superb pairing of poems and recipes makes this book a feast for all our senses.
The authors emphasize “real food” and fresh food: “Cut out anything with additives or preservatives. The simpler the list of ingredients the better; buy food … mostly in season … cut out refined sugar.” Many recipes suggest alternatives to refined white sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Diagrams explaining various cooking and cutting techniques are scattered throughout the book, and easy-to-follow directions work well for both novice and seasoned cooks. Recipes cater to all diets – omnivores, vegetarians and gluten-free eaters. Bonus: Michael Grimaldi’s colorful photos displaying finished dishes.
The book is divided into seasons; look for fresh stone fruits/berries in the summer section, and apples, pears and winter squash for fall. I’m looking forward to this summer’s sweet cantaloupes after reading their recipe for a juicy, refreshing Cantaloupe-Tomato Salad, combining cantaloupe, tomatoes, kalamata olives and ricotta cheese, dressed with a basil vinaigrette. A recipe for oatmeal in the winter section, made with unsalted dairy butter, nut butter and other goodies, can be prepared any time.
The authors are fans of real butter (hooray!) and write that “butter contains healthful components not found in anything else (other than real cream).” Julia Child is quoted as saying, “With enough butter, anything is good.”
Now, it’s time to eat.
Veggies are high on my list of favorite foods and my husband likes them too – except for Brussels sprouts. He agreed to taste one of the Kornfeld/Massimilla recipes for sprouts – made with apple, caraway seeds and grainy mustard. It’s a delicious addition to my veggie repertoire. Alas, my live-in feinschmecker tasted them and said, “No thanks; please pass the green beans.”
And, for someone always on the lookout for new ways to prepare salmon, the Seared Salmon topped with a blueberry-based slightly sweet tangy sauce sounded like a winner.
Here are those two recipes:
GLAZED BRUSSELS SPROUTS WITH APPLES, GRAINY MUSTARD
½ pound Brussels sprouts
1 apple, peeled cored, medium diced
2 tablespoons ghee (a type of clarified butter; the authors explain how to make it. I substituted 2 tablespoons of olive oil)
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
Salt, freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon grainy mustard,
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Trim sprouts. Cut thin slice off bottom and cut each sprout down the middle – lengthwise.
Place all ingredients except mustard, honey and vinegar in a large fry pan. Cover and cook on medium high until sprouts are tender, 5 to 6 minutes.
Remove cover, stir sprouts until water is absorbed and sprouts begin to brown. Mix mustard, honey and vinegar and stir into pan with sprouts, coating the veggies until “each sprout wears a speckled sheen.”
Note: “Brussels sprouts, popular in ancient Rome, were believed to sharpen the mind… The sprouts reached Brussels a few centuries later.” Poet and scholar Marcela Sulak’s engaging poem, “The History of Brussels Sprouts,” accompanies the recipe, detailing the veggie’s history in 14 descriptive lines.
SALMON WITH BLUEBERRY TERIYAKI SAUCE
4 six-ounce salmon fillets
Salt for sprinkling on salmon
½ cup water
2 tablespoons natural soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger root
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 cup fresh blueberries
Preheat oven 350 degrees; prepare baking sheet covered with parchment paper.
Sprinkle salmon with salt, let sit an hour at room temperature. Place fish on parchment paper and bake in preheated oven, about 8-10 minutes. (When white albumin/foam is visible on fish fillets, fish is done – don’t overcook.)
While fish bakes, whisk sauce ingredients and bring to a boil, uncovered, in medium fry pan on medium high. Lower heat and simmer until sauce is thickened – 5 to 7 minutes. Break up berries so they blend into the sauce.
Serve salmon hot with sauce drizzled over the top.
Note: The authors bake the fish in the oven; I used the microwave to cook my fish, cut the ingredients to serve two and followed their directions for the sauce.
Ruth Taber is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mixing it up
Extra virgin olive oil is an important ingredient in many of the recipes in the book “Cooking with the Muse – A Sumptuous Gathering of Seasonal Recipes, Culinary Poetry, and Literary Fare.” The authors write that “real deal” oil should have “pleasantly spicy-fruity flavors, create a pungent peppery sensation in the mouth and leave a bit of pleasant bitterness on the tongue.” Here is an excerpt from an adaptation by one of the authors of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s “Oda al Aceite (Ode to Olive Oil)”:
Stephen Massimilla: “… There are syllables of oil. There are words, useful and redolent, as your fragrant substance. Not only wine can sing. Olive oil sings as well; it lives in us with its ripe light among the blessings of the earth … .”
Neruda: “… Hay sílabas de aceite. Hay palabras, útiles y olorosas, como tu fragrante material. No solo canta el vino. También canta el aceite; vive en nosotros con su luz madura y entre los bienes de la tierra … .”