A Literary Line-up
I love my book club. It is my guilty pleasure.
Ten years ago, I met these amazing women and over the years they have become my family. We celebrate each others’ triumphs: marriages, children, job promotions, life changes. We support each other through challenges: divorce, family death, illness.
And then… there are the books.
Our group doesn’t hide behind books as an excuse to just hang out and gossip. Don’t get me wrong — there’s gossip. But we all share a deep and sincere love of good storytelling and we’re not afraid to debate whether a tale is well-told.
This month, it was my turn to host the discussion on The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani. The story is based on Trigiani’s own Italian ancestors who came to America during the pre-WWI wave of immigration. The food of northern Italy plays a prominent role throughout the book — making my mouth water at times. So, how could I not make an Italian meal for my friends and then test it out on my family???
Arancini, Gnocchi with Sage Butter Sauce, Big Italian Antipasto Salad & Tiramisu
To start the meal, I served a batch of Arancini as an appetizer. The recipe comes from Adriana Trigiani’s own website www.adrianitrigiani.com.
A disclosure: I love Italian food. As a Jersey Girl with Italian roots, Italian is by far one of my favorite cuisines. This is especially true if the meal is: 1) made by my wonderful Italian mother, and 2) made in an authentic New Jersey Italian restaurant and shared with my family. But, I have my favorite dishes and tend to stick with them.
This is why I had never eaten Arancini — also known as Sicilian Rice Balls. They’re fried balls of risotto, peas and ricotta cheese. But I’d never heard of them — until I read Trigiani’s website. So I followed her recipe to the ‘T’ out of fear of messing it up for my guests.
ARANCINI (Sicilian Rice Balls)
- 2 cups Arborio rice
- 1 cup Romano cheese
- 1 small bag frozen peas…thawed
- 2 eggs..beaten
- 1 lb. Ricotta
- 2 cups dried breadcrumbs
- 3 cups canola oil ( for deep-frying)
Boil rice till cooked and drain. While WARM, mix in Romano. peas, and eggs. Mix well and cool. Next, take a handfull of this mixture, make a depression in the middle and fill it with 1 teaspoon of Ricotta. Cover with more rice and shape into a small football. Place on tray and refrigerate (better if overnight). When ready to fry..heat oil. Roll ball in (egg..if desired) and breadcrumbs. Fry till golden. Drain on paper towel. Best when served warm.
I made the rice balls the night before our book club meeting, refrigerated them overnight, and then fried them in the afternoon before my friends arrived. After spending about 30 minutes in a 200 degree oven, they were good to go. I served them with some tomato sauce.
These were a big hit with my book club friends, who seemed to like the idea of tying the evening’s menu to the author and her work. The Hubs really enjoyed the Arancini, as well.
But the kids — oh!!! The kids!!!! Wow. This was just painful. I made something completely new and different for them (like octopus the other day wasn’t!?!?!?) and you would have thought I was the worst mother alive. Come to think of it, they actually tell me this sometimes. If you thought you were the ‘worst mother alive’, nope. Guess again. I’ve already won that title numerous times here in my own house.
My 7yo liked the ‘inside’ — the rice part. My 5yo liked the outside — the fried part. My 3yo… well…. she’s three. She likes nothing these days.
Gnocchi with Butter Sage Sauce
Next came the main course. I’ll admit it: gnocchi isn’t my favorite pasta. I personally find it can be very heavy. It ordinarily would not have been my first choice of what to make in the middle of a heat wave. But the main character in The Shoemaker’s Wife makes gnocchi with sage sauce, so I gave it a try.
BUT — and here’s the big BUT — I did not make the gnocchi from scratch. It’s a fairly labor-intensive dish. Instead, I bought bags of frozen gnocchi and followed this DeLallo recipe for butter, sage and lemon sauce.
- 8 tablespoons butter (1 stick)
- 1/3 cup fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon peel, finely grated
- Salt and pepper
Cook gnocchi according to package directions and drain. Meanwhile, cook butter in medium skillet over medium-high heat until butter begins to brown, about 4 minutes. Add sage and lemon peel. Season with salt and pepper. Toss gnocchi in skillet with butter sauce and cook together on medium-high heat for about 2 minutes to combine flavors.
WOW! This sauce is for REAL!!! I didn’t know what I would think of it, my mom told me it’s one of her favorites. I can see why! It’s the perfect comfort food and it was SO EASY! My friends were all hanging out in my kitchen while I boiled the pasta and threw the sauce together. It was done in about 5 minutes.
BUT – I don’t know that all of my guests loved it. I think everyone liked it just ‘fine.’ But I’m not sure they loved it. This was – after all – a very heavy meal with a lot of starches. So that may have played a roll, but I can’t say because my friends are way too kind to say anything bad about the meal. 🙂
Then there were the kids. OH! The kids! If the arancini was bad, this was just plain terrible!!! I thought they were going to revolt right there at the table. Again.. I was thinking: you children will eat OCTOPUS, but not gnocchi?!?!?!? What is wrong with you?!?!? Not even knowing the cat on Curious George’s name is ‘Gnocchi’ helped them appreciate this delicious dish.
To say I was a little befuddled is an understatement.
The Big Italian Salad
This. Was. Awesome. And beautiful. A little bit salad. A little bit antipasto. Perfecto!
Follow this recipe from Food & Wine… you will not be disappointed. I added some prosciutto and thought that gave it a little extra somethin’, somethin’.
Everyone seemed to like it — even the kids. (shocker!)
Tiramisu is my favorite dessert. Ever. This is why I was shocked and disappointed to find out that one of my children doesn’t like it.
WHAT?!?! Again — child, you will eat octopus, but not Tiramisu?!?!
He’s crazy. This was amazing. My other two kids loved it, and it was SO EASY! Even I could make it! (If you know me at all, you know dessert is not my best effort in the kitchen.) My Kitchen Aid standing mixer did all of the hard work.
Again… I followed this Giada de Laurentiis Food Network recipe step-by-step and it turned out just like I’ve had it in restaurants. Plus, I liked that I could make it the night before my party and just pulled it out of the refrigerator when it was time to serve.
- 6 egg yolks
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1 pound mascarpone cheese
- 1 1/2 cups strong espresso, cooled
- 2 teaspoons dark rum
- 24 packaged ladyfingers
- 1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate shavings, for garnish
- In a large bowl, using an electric mixer with whisk attachment, beat egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale, about 5 minutes. Add mascarpone cheese and beat until smooth. Add 1 tablespoon of espresso and mix until thoroughly combined.
- In a small shallow dish, add remaining espresso and rum. Dip each ladyfinger into espresso for only 5 seconds. Letting the ladyfingers soak too long will cause them to fall apart. Place the soaked ladyfinger on the bottom of a 13 by 9 inch baking dish, breaking them in half if necessary in order to fit the bottom.
- Spread evenly 1/2 of the mascarpone mixture over the ladyfingers. Arrange another layer of soaked ladyfingers and top with remaining mascarpone mixture.
- Cover tiramisu with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, up to 8 hours.
- Before serving, sprinkle with chocolate shavings.
Overview: I thought, overall, this was a good meal. And it was really fun to come up with ways I could tie the meal to the book. But, at the end of this meal, I realized I may need to be ripped of my Italian card. I come from a long line of amazing Italian cooks, but I have somehow raised children who have little appreciation for a true Italian meal. ((no, children, Chef Boyardee does NOT count!)) It is a sincere injustice to my ancestors.
Note to self: make more Italian food.