Christmas in Provence for Cooking for Picasso, by Camille Aubrey

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Our book club enjoys a good meal, a fine wine, and a well-crafted tale. For the December book each year, we strive to find a novel that will supply us with the foundation for all three. Our choice this year, Camille Aubrey’s Cooking for Picasso, certainly provided ample inspiration for Provencal food and wine.

The novel itself was a strange mix of compelling and semi-ridiculous. Cooking for Picasso revolves between a “inspired by a (real) little known interval in the life of the painter” and a modern day romantic-ish mystery where a woman is searching for the Picasso painting of her grandmother.

Camille Aubrey states in the book jacket that Margaret Atwood is her mentor. During the interludes in the past, that seems possible. But in the sections set during the current day search: the stereotypically villainous lawyer-father, the Gordon Ramsay-like chef who becomes a romantic interest in the blink of an eye, evil twins, the save-the-day-tied-up-with-a-bow plot — I can’t imagine the author of The Handmaid’s Tale championing this mash-up.

The plot of Cooking for Picasso: Picasso travels to the remote village of Juan-les-Pins on the 90c3df0ae6e7474a9f2c35087fbba664.jpgCote d’Azur. It is the years immediately before World War Two and Picasso is trying to escape an enraged wife and find his painting mojo. That part is apparently true. A young girl named Ondine is sent by her restaurant-owner parents each day to prepare Picasso’s luncheon and she becomes his friend, muse and model for a real painting: Femme a la Montre.

Sixty years later, Ondine’s granddaughter goes in search of this rumored family legacy, a painting.

So I told her about how Grandma Ondine cooked for Picasso, which of course immediately intrigued Aunt Matilda. And then I explained that maybe, just maybe, Grandma had hidden a painting for safekeeping somewhere.

As a whole, we enjoyed the information about Picasso and his process, but got bogged down in the modern parts of the story.

The best part of the night was the menu. There are numerous options for food, but since this was the December meeting, I focused on Les Trieze Desserts de Noel.

For the holidays, [Mom’s] rooms were decorated with pine branches and maroon-and-gold ribbon; the parlor had a big tree winking with lights and baubels and wrapped gifts sining beneath it; and, in her large, beautiful kitchen, almost every table and countertop was laden with home-baked desserts.

“You made Les Treize Desserts de Noel!” I exclaimed, thrilled at the charming sight of this ancient, traditional series of Provencal home-baked sweets. Delighted by my enthusiasm, Mom proudly gave me a tour of the Thirteen Desserts of Christmas. Here was the dish of dried fruits and nuts called the Four Beggars to represent the four orders of monks; then a sweet, brioche-like cake made with orange flower water and olive oil; various meringue and candied citrus and melon confections; two kinds of nougats with pistachio and almond; also the think, waffle-like oreillettes, cookies dusted with powdered sugar like the snow sifting outside; and of course, the spectacular buche de Noel — a Yule Log of rolled chocolate cake with a caramel cream filling, and dark chocolate frosting which had been scraped by a fork’s tines to make it resemble a hunter’s newly chopped log from the forest.

The story is interesting, the life of Picasso and his inspirations fascinating, and the food marvelous. You could do worse than Cooking for Picasso.

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Multiple choices. Among them:

Bouillabaisse

Tartine – open face sandwich of cold pate, cheese, olive tapenade

Cassoulet

Langostine appetizers

Easter cheesecake

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My choice was to do my best imitation of the Provencal Christmas Eve dinner called “Le
Gros Souper,”
which calls for seven “plain” dishes that do not include meat. I served white bean dip, green salad dressed in olive oil, haricort vertes, lentils, salmon, croissants, chestnut soup, and marinated olives . This I followed with the thirteen desserts. Four Beggars: figs, raisins, almonds, hazelnuts. Nougat: white and dark. Dates and walnuts. Fresh fruit. Elephant ear cookies. Marzipan. And the one item I attempted to make (and it turned out quite well) the olive oil cake. Here are recipes I used:

White bean puree

  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried parsley
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 15-oz can white beans, drained
  • ¼ cup roasted red peppers, finely diced
  • Using a food processor or blender, puree all the ingredients except the red peppers. Add water if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the bean puree is completely smooth. Stir in the red peppers and serve.

Chestnut soup

  • 4 cups strong vegetable stock
  • 8 ounces cooked chestnuts
  • 1 cup chopped white onions
  • 1/2 cup chopped carrots
  • 1 thin celery stalk with leaves, chopped (1/2 cup chopped celery)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper

3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup crème fraiche, divided

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, bring the vegetable stock, chestnuts, onions, carrots, celery, salt, and pepper to a simmer. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to low-medium, and simmer the soup for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Stir in 3/4 cup of the crème fraiche.

Process the soup, in batches, in a blender until smooth. Alternately, use a hand-held immersion blender to process the mixture.

Olive Oil Bread (serve with grape jam)

Butter, for greasing the pan

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/3 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Juice and zest of 1 orange (about 3 tablespoons juice, 1 tablespoon zest)

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.

Mix together the sugar and eggs in a medium bowl with a hand mixer on medium speed until blended and light. Drizzle in the olive oil and vanilla and mix until light and smooth. Add the orange juice and zest and mix well. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in another medium bowl. Add the flour mixture half at a time to the wet ingredients and mix on low just to incorporate. Pour into the prepared cake pan and bake, 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cake cool 15 minutes, dust with confectioners’ sugar and serve.

MUSIC

I have a c.d. entitled A Christmas Eve in Paris that includes Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, and Django Reinhart. It’s available on iTunes. What could be better?

Whatever you’re reading this holiday season, I hope it is hopeful and fulfilling and I wish you the best! Thanks for reading and blessings to you and yours.

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Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen

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Andrew Yancy’s life in the Florida Keys as a disgraced detective now on restaurant varmint patrol may not be his ideal life, but it is great fun for readers. In Razor Girl, Carl Hiaasen’s latest hilarious adventure, Yancy finds himself plagued by Gambian pouched rats, an Italian mafioso, television agents, an exceptionally randy personal injury lawyer and his money-hungry fiancee, the patriarch of a reality t.v. clan of faux backwoodsmen, and a woman who intentionally causes automobile wrecks while shaving her bikini area. Yancy does not live a boring life.

And Hiaasen does not write a boring book. Razor Girl is a rock and roll, non-stop, occasionally out-of-control festival of a book.

razorgirlOn the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it.

Twenty-seven miles from Coolman’s destination, an old green Firebird bashed his car from behind. The impact failed to trigger the Buick’s airbags, but Coolman heard the rear bumper dragging. He steered off the highway and dialed 911. In the mirror he saw the Firebird, its grille crimped and steaming, pull onto the shoulder. Ahead stood a sign that said: “Ramrod Key.”

Coolman went to check on the other driver, a woman in her mid-thirties with red hair.

“Super-duper sorry,” she said.

What the hell happened?”

“Just a nick. Barely bleeding.”She held her phone in one hand and a disposable razor in the other.

“Are you out of your mind?” said Coolman.

The driver’s jeans and panties were bunched around her knees. She’d been shaving herself when she smashed Coolman’s rental car.

“I got a date,” she explained.

“You couldn’t take care of that at home?”

“No way! My husband would get so pissed.”

“Unreal,” said Coolman.

The woman was wearing a maroon fleece jacket and rhinestone flip-flops. On her pale thigh was the razor mark.

The novel (classified by its publisher as Suspense/Thriller, which I suppose is accurate but I’d add comedy to the categorization) begins when Merry Mansfield crashes into Hollywood agent Lane Coolman’s car. Coolman is fleeing an expensive California divorce and is on his way to a “performance” by his most lucrative client, Buck Nance patriarch of reality t.v.’s Bayou Brethren. Unfortunately, Coolman is mistaken for a sand con artist and abducted leading to Nance’s disappearance.

Somehow these colorful individuals become involved with roach patrol detective Yancy, a loathsome couple who want to build a MacMansion beside Yancy’s plot of Keys heaven, a Mafioso and his service dog, John, and various and assorted other nuts and charcarl-mugacters.

I don’t like: I love Carl Hiaasen. And I’m not sure if it’s because I love the snarky, jaded,
narcissistic, beach-loving, flawed characters of his or if it’s because of his zippy language or simply because he’s a journalist-turned successful novelist and I want to be him when I grow up. He wrote Strip Tease, Bad Monkey and Lucky You, among many others, during his time off (one supposes) from writing a column and reporting for The Miami Herald. http://carlhiaasen.com/bio.shtml Incidentally, the Miami Herald is also the part-time home of another of my favorite writers, Dave Barry.

In Razor Girl, Hiaasen skewers just about everything and everyone, including the Bayou Brethren fan base of “patriotic Americans” who think a gun, a flag and a wall will save America.

For the dead of winter, it’s the sunniest book imaginable. I highly recommend.

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My menu for a Razor Girl bookclub (despite Yancy’s job as a restaurant inspector, I would serve food) would include:

Hummus (no diamonds included)

Shrimp Cocktail

Cuban Sandwiches, with Chicken

Key Lime Pie — whipped cream is mandatory! Epicurious.com says this recipe won their internal contest for best key lime pie ever: http://www.epicurious.com/recipes-menus/best-key-lime-pie-recipe-article

MUSIC

Of course, Jimmy Buffett would be appropriate. Or some Cuban tunes. The soundtrack from Hiaasen’s Strip Tease is available. You could add AC/DC’s Razor’s Edge, if you like that kind of thing.

Happy Reading!