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Author Leon’s ‘Brunetti’s Cookbook’ a Mystery Lover’s Find


Those who are passionate about serious detective fiction (the kind without cats as main characters) know the name Donna Leon as one of the best writers around. Set in Venice, Italy, her books are literate and witty. Her main character, Commissario Guido Brunetti, is very smart, a crack investigator with a quiet, inexorable approach to taking down killers.

Brunetti's Cookbook coverBrunetti also has some endearing traits — and the one that endears him to foodies is that he (and his family) savors the simple but deftly created meals that come from his wife Paola’s kitchen. Literal-minded, intellectual and outspoken, Paola is also a university professor — and suffers no fools gladly.

Leon was born in the United States, but has lived in Venice for decades. So, her award-winning Brunetti series is grounded in her direct experience of the fascinating city. Yes, it is known for its history, architecture, winding canals and boats and corner shops offering the best of Italian pastries and espresso, seasonal food and a strong culinary culture.

She also mixes in the blemishes that tourist brochures avoid: the garbage that floats in the canals, the mobs of unruly tourists and the tacky shops that cater to them. But most of all, crime.

The mobsters, murderers, serial killers and others who make up the bad guys in this vividly and intelligently written series would seem to be so rampant as to require a small army to keep them at bay. And Guido Brunetti, a sort of one-man army against this lot in Venice, can’t fight on an empty stomach.

Brunetti's Cookbook illusNevertheless, says Leon in the first of six essays included in the book, she never intended to write a cookbook — her characters ate the way Italians eat, with an expectation that the food would be excellent and meals luxurious.

“Though many Italians have read the books and remarked on them to me over the years, none has ever mentioned the presence of food: For them, as for me, Brunetti’s meals are simply a part of the received culture. How would people be expected to eat?” she says.

“Brunetti’s Cookbook,” (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.95) is the second printing of the book, which originally was published in Great Britain in 2010 as “A Taste of Venice: At Table with Brunetti.”

So, while the book is not a new release, the recipes, the stories and charming color illustrations by Tatajana Hauptmann are timeless. The recipes are accompanied by text from Leon’s novels and the recipes were created by Roberta Pianaro.

I didn’t know this book existed until I had read many of the books in Leon’s Brunetti series. The recipes sounded simple and every book had me convinced I’d soon be making such wonders as Paola’s Seafood Antipasto, or Monkfish Cutlets with Peppers or Risotto with Squash Blossoms and Ginger.

One day, while reading, it occurred to me that of course, someone must have thought to present a cookbook project to the author. And if not, I’d be the one to do it. I went to Amazon and there it was: A cookbook embracing all of that beautiful food and also quite wonderful — excerpts from the books to accompany them, to provide context for many of the dishes and to display samples of Leon’s writing prowess.

It was hard to choose just a few recipes to share, too. But I chose them based on what I’d found most enticing. And yes, I still plan to cook them.

If you wish to enter into Brunnetti’s world, I’d suggest finding the book list for Leon’s series, start with No. 1 and make your way through the two dozen or so books. Another suggestion: Don’t chomp your way through these carefully crafted police procedurals, take your time — there is much to savor!

Recipes:

Chicken Breasts with Artichokes (Petto di pollo al carciofi)

Swordfish with Savoury Breadcrumbs (Pesce spada al pangrattato saporito)

Risotto with Squash Blossoms and Ginger (Risotto di fiori di zucca e zenzero)

 

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Risotto with Squash Blossoms and Ginger


Brunetti's Cookbook illusSquash blossoms are another item that will be in season soon, and a great place to find them is in farmers markets. This is an unusual recipe for risotto and it would be good with either of the other two recipes we’ve shared from “Brunetti’s Cookbook.”

Risotto with Squash Blossoms and Ginger

3/4 pound squash blossoms

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

2 crushed chicken bouillon cubes

2 tablespoons fresh ginger root, peeled and grated

1 3/4 cups risotto rice, such as Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone Nano

1 ounce butter

1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Wash the squash blossoms. Keep the pistils and cut the petals. Heat the oil in a non-stick casserole and fry the shallots lightly together with the salt and 2 tablespoons of water. When transparent, add the squash blossoms and pistils and 1 cup water and cook for 15 minutes. Add the crushed stock cubes and 1 teaspoon of the ginger. Add the rice and cook, adding 4 cups of boiling water, 1 cup at a time. Cook for 20-30 minutes until al dente, then add the remaining ginger and mix well. Add the butter and Parmesan, and serve.

From “Brunetti’s Cookbook” by Donna Leon and Roberta Pianaro

 

 

 

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Swordfish with Savoury Breadcrumbs


Flat-leaf parsley

The seasonings for Swordfish with Savoury Breadcrumbs include capers, Parmesan cheese, garlic and fresh parsley. Simple, but a good way to prepare this meaty fish.

 

Swordfish with Savoury Breadcrumbs (Pesce spada al pangrattato saporito)

1  1/2 pounds swordfish (fillets cut into four pieces)

1/2 cup breadcrumbs, plus extra to finish

1 sprig of finely chopped fresh parsley

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon capers preserved in salt, washed and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

2 medium eggs

1 pinch of salt

Wash the swordfish and dry with kitchen paper. Place the breadcrumbs in a mixing bowl with the parsley, oil, capers, garlic and cheese. Mix well. In another mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the salt. Dip each swordfish slice in the egg mixture and then into the breadcrumb blend. Arrange them side by side on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Cover each swordfish slice with more breadcrumbs for an even tastier result. Place in a preheated oven (375 degrees) and bake for 15-20 minutes.

From “Brunetti’s Cookbook” by Donna Leon and Roberta Pianaro

 

 

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Chicken Breast with Artichokes


“The Venetians have always been meat-eaters. In times past they ate the whole animal, and were thus able to satisfy both their taste and their pockets.” — Roberta Pianaro, creator of the recipes in “Brunetti’s Cookbook.

 

Artichokes stacked croppedChicken Breasts with Artichokes (Petto di pollo at carciofi)

5 medium globe artichokes

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

Freshly ground black pepper

1  3/4 pound chicken

2 tablespoons white wine

Juice of 1/2 a lemon

Remove the tough stems from the artichokes, trim the tips and peel the stems. Plunge into a bowl of cold water with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Cut into fine slices, starting from the stems, and place in nonstick pan or casserole with the oil, salt, garlic, pepper and at least 3 1/2 cups of water. Cover and cook over moderate heat for about 15 minutes. Place the 2 chicken breasts at the bottom of the pan among the artichokes and after 2 minutes add the wine and continue cooking. Be careful to not burn the artichokes. When the chicken is cooked, remove and cut into thin slices. Add slices to the artichokes and let season. Drain and serve hot.

From “Brunetti’s Cookbook”

 

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