Years ago, I found a copy of Michael Dibdin's Ratking in the room of the resort where I was vacationing. I was intrigued by the fact that the story was set in my home town of Perugia, so I read it. Later on, I learned that Dibdin (who died in 2007) had taught at the university there. I have since read a few more novels by him, all featuring police inspector Aurelio Zen and each set in a different part of Italy. All the novels I have read contain interesting references to food and drink.
In Back to Bologna (2005), there is something else: one of the characters, Romano Rinaldi, is a TV chef, and an episode of the book is the televised cooking challenge between him and Edgardo Ugo, university professor of semiotics. The reference here is to Umberto Eco. Eco is widely known for his novels, but before reading his Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose), I read, while in college, Opera aperta (literally, open work), a book on literary theory that made an enormous impression on me (if you are curious, the wikipedia entry I referenced above briefly explains what this is about).
Based on my limited experience of Dibdin's work, this novel is different. Zen is more preoccupied with his health (he is recovering from abdominal surgery) and his rapidly deteriorating relationship with Gemma than with the murder at the beginning of the story. The disconnect Zen experiences is reflected in the story, the various characters and their actions. This created the tension that made me continue reading until the last page.
The story of the TV chef is a satire of the world of illusion created for the screen and its audience. The man sings while he makes you believe that he is cooking: he is lo chef che canta e incanta (the chef who sings and enchants). Reality tries to assert itself the first time Rinaldi performs live:
The audience burst into laughter and applause. Rinaldi acknowledged their appreciation of his wit and poise with a rendition of the famous aria from Rigoletto, changing the lyrics to 'La donna è mobile ma indispensabile.' This led to still more applause. Keenly in tune with the mood of his public, he proceeded with the rest of the piece, interpolating or altering lyrics as he went, before ending on a high and long-held note at the very edge of his local range.
It was at this moment that the pan of oil on the stove behind him burst into flames.
What happens next to Rinaldi's career is interesting, and I prefer not to reveal it, in case you decide to read the novel. It was not lo chef che canta e incanta, however, that inspired me, but professor Ugo. At the beginning of the movie, Ugo references a party held at his house, which made me do a bit of additional reading and ultimately inspired me to cook the dish I will describe later on:
He walked downstairs to the gigantic kitchen and peered despondently into the fridge. There were the remains of the dinner to which he'd invited a group of friends and colleagues the previous weekend, all the dishes being prepared communally from Marinetti's tract on Futurist cooking. As the generous quantity of leftovers indicated, the preparation had been more satisfying then the actual food, but it had all looked very striking and had been beautifully photographed for an article about the event in La Cucina Italiana — good publicity for everyone concerned.
He selected a few of the chunks of mortadella and cheese sculpted into letters that had formed part of the dish 'Edible Words', from which all the guests were supposed to eat their own names, then walked through the former's housekeeper's office.
I did not know that the interests of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, included gastronomy, so, of course, I had to find out more. There is actually quite a bit, starting from the Il manifesto della cucina futurista (Manifesto of Futurist Cookery), published in 1930. This article describes the message Marinetti launched and the reactions to it. At the beginning of his manifesto, Marinetti calls for the elimination of pasta and supports the consumption of rice. Later on, he states that the perfect meal requires an absolute originality of dishes.
Banchetti futuristi (banquets) were organized, where the principles of the Manifesto were applied. One of those banquets, on the theme of aviation (movement and speed were important themes in Futurism), included a dish called rombi d'ascesa, described as risotto all'arancia, a dish that would not raise eyebrows today, but I can imagine it did 80 years or so ago (rombo, in this context, is the noise made by an engine, and ascesa means ascent). I found a recipe for rombi d'ascesa, but the inclusion of roast beef juice made is unpalatable to me, so I decided to make a simple vegetarian risotto, using orange juice (succo d'arancia) as part of the liquid. I have made fruit-based risotto many times before, but never with oranges, so this was the inspiration I needed.
Interestingly enough, soon after reading the passage in Dibdin's book, I saw a reference to Futurist Cuisine in a New Yorker's article by Adam Gopnik on Le Fooding, another topic about which I knew nothing before my reading.
Back to Dibdin's Back to Bologna. It is always a conundrum for me to decide how much to reveal about the story, especially in the case of a mystery novel. Maybe I will end with Bill Ott's words in Booklist: "This isn't the dark neo-noir with which the Zen series helped redefine European crime fiction (e.g., Blood Rain, 2002), but it's a plenty tasty blend of tragedy and comedy."
Now on to the risotto. The first time I made it, I used a blood orange (arancia sanguigna) and the result was nice. Note that the darker color of the risotto in the photo below compared with the one in the photo at the beginning is due to a combination of blood orange juice and a bit of red beet juice that was in the vegetable broth.
The second time, I used a navel orange and also decided to have scallops play the part of rombi. I know, scallops are not rhomboidal in shape, but I could have cut them that way.
Ingredients for the risotto:
- 2 cups / 475 ml vegetable broth, possibly homemade + 1/2 cup / 120 ml water to make a light vegetable broth
- 1/2-1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 tablespoons minced shallot
- Leaves of two thyme sprigs
- 1 cup / 200 g Carnaroli or Vialone Nano or Arborio rice
- 2 tablespoons / 30 ml white wine, not cold
- Juice of one orange, about 1/3 cup / 80 ml; before juicing the orange, grate the zest
- 2-3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano OR 2 tablespoons mascarpone, cream cheese or fresh chèvre
- Sea salt, to taste
Ingredients for the (optional) scallops:
- 8 scallops
- 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
- Fine sea salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Orange juice, to taste
- Reserved orange zest
Bring the broth to a simmer in a small pan and maintain it at that temperature.
In the meantime, in a larger pan, warm up the olive oil, then add the shallot and thyme. Cook on low until the shallot is translucent, then add the rice and stir.
Let the rice toast for one minute, then add the white wine and stir. Let the wine evaporate, while stirring the rice, then start adding the simmering broth, a ladleful at a time, and letting the rice absorb it.
Keep the risotto at a nice simmer and stir it at regular intervals. Make sure it never gets dry. Add the orange juice towards the end of the cooking time.
The rice should be soft and creamy, but with some body (slightly al dente). Taste it after 15 minutes from the first addition of broth: if it feels a bit hard at the core, cook it a minute longer, then check again.
Once ready, add Parmigiano-Reggiano or other cheese of choice. Stir until the cheese is incorporated, then let the risotto rest, covered, for a few minutes. Adjust the salt, stir and plate.
A few minutes before the risotto is ready, prepare the scallops. Cut them in half crosswise. Heat the olive oil in a skillet until quite hot.
Distribute the scallops in the skillet and pan-fry for one minute, until they are golden at the edges. Flip the scallops in the same order in which you distributed them in the pan.
Cook the other side for no more than one minute. Season with a bit of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Distribute four scallop halves on each plate of risotto. Drizzle a small amount of orange juice on each scallop and decorate with the reserved orange zest.
If desired, decorate the risotto with orange pulp removed from the juicer.
A more intense flavor can be provided by orange peel, blanched and then cut into thin strips, which are also decorative (as you can see on this page). My husband does not like orange peel, so I did not explore this option.
This, as you may have guessed, is my contribution to the tenth edition of Novel Food, the literary/culinary event that Lisa of Champaign Taste and I have been co-hosting for some time, since a conversation on the food in Montalbano's novels gave us the idea of marrying literature and food in a blog event.