Monday, November 28, 2011

Time to Cook the Books a la Grecque

The latest book pick for Cook the Books, the Internet foodie book club that my friends Johanna of Food Junkie, Not Junk Food and Deb of Kahakai Kitchen started three years ago, is Patricia Volonakis Davis'  Harlot's Sauce: A Memoir of Food, Family, Love, Loss, and Greece (NY: Harper Davis Publishers 2008).  With Cook the Books, we have read many kinds of foodie non-fiction, novels, children's literature and biographies, and traveled the world reading about different culinary traditions, but we have never examined the wonderful food culture of Greece, so I was excited when Johanna picked this book for our current CTB selection.

Davis tells the story of her courtship and marriage to a Greek immigrant and the cultural clashes between her first generation Italian-American family and his. Eventually, she and Gregori and their son Nick move to Greece and her descriptions of her new life there were the most interesting part of the book for me. I enjoyed the translations of various Greek words and expressions ("She can make a donkey die!" means someone is stubborn beyond words) and loved her prose about about Greek Orthodox rituals, the complex dance of the biscotti and coffee at Greek funerals, and comparisons of American and Greek attitudes towards children, stray dogs, and education.

Though the word "Food" is given preeminence in the title of this book, there is not so much discussion of Greek cuisine as there are descriptions of how Davis' marriage weakens and ultimately unravels. And this is not what I thought the book would be about, so unfortunately, I would find my thoughts drifting away through yet another recitation of a marital argument or fight with a passive-aggressive in-law. I flipped ahead through many pages seeking out the nuggets about Greek culture seen through an American's eyes or about the love-hate relationship that first generation immigrant families have with US pop culture and societal freedoms.

My favorite character in the book is Patricia's mother, a chain-smoking philosopher, whom she unfortunately becomes estranged from after too many Gregori incidents.  I absolutely loved Mama Nancy's theory of comparative religion. When young Patricia came home from Catholic school one day and asked how one knows that their religion is "the right one", Mom replies:

 "All religions are the "right" religion, if they're right for the person following them. They all teach basically the same things: to love one another, be the best people we can be, to never deliberately harm someone else."

When her daughter asks why there are different religions, Mom's educational metaphor comes back: "The best way I can describe it is that it's like decorating a house. Some have furniture that might seem strange to you, but the people who live there are happy with it." (p. 81)

After my reading, I was inspired to filch a Greek cookbook from our bookstore shelves, Perfect Greek (London: Parragon, 2006) and perused many a delicious recipe for various mezze, sweets and salads, but ultimately I settled on a recipe for a tomatoey Greek Fisherman's Soup which I adapted to be much more stew-like and which made for a wonderfully fragrant meal served over rice. I'm glad I made a big pot of rice, because this concoction had terrific juices and we sopped up every bit at dinner.

Here's a Fish Stew fit for a Harlot or Fisherman or whomever shows up at your table:

Greek Fisherman's Stew (adapted from Perfect Greek)

2 frozen fillets of tilapia, thawed and cut into chunks (they will flake off in the cooking)
1 lb. frozen shrimp, thawed and shelled

1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
4 stalks celery, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

3 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 (14 oz.) can diced tomatoes and their juice
Peel of one orange
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
3 Tbsp. chopped Italian parsley
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot cooked rice

Heat olive oil in large soup pot. Add onion, celery and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened, about five minutes. Add fish and shrimp and cook, stirring often, another 5-7 minutes, until shrimp are pink

Add white wine and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add orange peel (I used a tangerine and squeezed in the juice too), thyme, parsley and bay leaves. Cook another 15 minutes at a simmer until seafood is thoroughly cooked and the fish has flaked up and into your wonderful stew juices.  Season with salt and pepper and serve over hot cooked rice. The citrus in the sauce really picks up the sweetness of the fish and shrimp.

Makes 4 dinner servings.

Johanna, our resident Athenian Cook the Book hostess, will be posting a roundup of all the blog entries about Harlot's Sauce after tomorrow's deadline, so hop on over to Cook the Books later this week to see all the posts. Our featured author, Patricia Volonakis Davis, will also be serving as our guest judge to select a winner from the blog entries so that should be entertaining reading as well.

**Next up on the Cook the Books reading list is John and Matt Lewis Thorne's collection of food essays "Outlaw Cook".  It's a fantastic book and I invite you all to join us in reading the book and then blogging up your thoughts and any Outlaw-inspired recipes.


Alicia Foodycat said...

Fabulous looking stew! I haven't made that sort of thing in ages - you have inspired me!

Eliotseats said...

I love the stew and the platter! I have to agree with you about the book. Although I enjoyed it, it was not my favorite CTB pick. I was expecting more FOOD too.

Thanks reminding about her mother's philosophies about religion. I had forgotten---how funny (and really true).

Claudia said...

I agree, the book didn't really resonate with me, and wasn't anything at all to do with food, other than the title. But, you came up with a delicious fish stew, perfect for this weather too.

Deb in Hawaii said...

Such a great, detailed review--I love all of the different points you pulled out of the book. I guess the lack of food was a common feeling amongst many of us. ;-)

That stew looks delicious--perfect for a hearty dinner.

Foodjunkie said...

Great review as always. I love this stew, so hearty but healthy!

Danid said...

YUMMY! I can't wait to try this stew. I don't make stews too often and am always looking for something delicious to make. I also loved your review of the book.

Simona Carini said...

What a lovely stew on that really cute plate!

Patricia V. Davis said...

Thanks so much for your commentary on "Harlot's Sauce" and this WONDERFUL recipe. I will be sure to post it on my website along with the others.

Warmest regards,

Ann Minard said...

This looks and sounds like Greek comfort food!