Our current Cook the Books Club selection is Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown1, a novel that follows the stories of two women, Alice and Eleanor (Nellie). In 2018, Alice and her husband, Nate, move from Manhattan to a house in a town outside New York sold because the previous owner had died. In the basement, Alice finds a cookbook and a box of old magazines. Her neighbor, Sally, tells her a bit about Eleanor, who lived in the house from the mid-1950's until her death, and gives Alice a set of letters written by Eleanor to her own mother.
The novel alternates between Alice and Eleanor, both struggling in their marriage and holding secrets from their husband, both dealing with the expectations around childbearing, both trying to find their place in the world. As her husband becomes more and more violent, Nellie finds refuge with Miriam, her neighbor and Sally's mother, just like Alice finds a friend in Sally.
In the sections devoted to Nellie, we see her cooking dishes from a beloved cookbook that belonged to her mother, Elsie. After Alice finds the cookbook, she tries some recipes. Each recipe is given within context: for example, cookies prepared for a neighborhood meeting, Baked Alaska for a dinner party. The nicest recipe-related scene is the one where Nellie recalls making Lemon Lavender Muffins with her mother in their small kitchen. Nellie does almost everything, while Elsie prepares the lavender buds (two teaspoons) and reminds Nellie not to overstir the batter.
One of the recipes in the book is for Tuna Casserole, which uses canned tuna and canned mushroom soup. This type of ingredients are part of casseroles' success.
[T]he casserole—the all-American meal-in-a-dish that lured skilled cooks of the early 1900s away from the art of scratch recipes to the mechanics of convenience cooking, thus launching a new category in American-style cuisine.
Casseroles could, conversely, lure today’s convenience cooks back into the kitchen, if only to open a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup and throw a handful of noodles, cashews and celery stubs into a dish that would become that evening’s--and maybe even tomorrow’s--supper.2
In the summer, when fresh vegetables abound, I prefer to eat fresh vegetables. Still, I held to the idea of making a baked dish with a small number of ingredients. Rather than taking those from the pantry, I got them from the farmers' market. This is the time of the year when it is easy to overdo with purchases. A dish of roasted vegetables is a way to make sure you use all your purchases. The side dish is great when freshly baked and leftovers (avanzi) are delicious.
The dish is not particularly pretty, but the raw ingredients are. Recently I've been photographing sets of vegetables fresh from the farmers' market, edible still lives. It's hard not to be fascinated by the colors: in the photo at the top the eggplant Listada de Gandia is marbled purple, the zucchini Costata Romanesco are light green and speckled and the tomatoes on the vine are Edox3 perfectly red. The herb on the right is winter savory4 (santoreggia montana) from my garden, an herb I use a lot in my cooking.
It is fine to use other varieties of eggplant and zucchini. In fact, the rendition pictured above and below included a purple globe eggplant and I have also used Chinese eggplant (from a favorite vendor at the South Berkeley farmers' market, who also introduced me to Chinese bitter melon and Korean melon) and yellow zucchini.
- 3 tablespoons / 45 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 eggplant (or 2 small ones) 12 ounces / 340 grams
- 2 zucchini 9 ounces / 250 grams
- 6 ounces / 170 grams cherry plum, cherry or grape tomatoes: a variety that is good for roasting
- 2 plums or 1 peach 4 ounces / 112 grams, optional but good
- 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh leaves of winter savory or thyme or a mix of the two
- 1/4 teaspoon Penzey's Arizona Dreaming Seasoning OR a pinch each of ground paprika, cumin, black pepper, ancho or chipotle pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, or to taste
Heat the oven to 375 F / 190 C.
Distribute the olive oil on the bottom of a 3 quart / 3 liter (13"x 9" x 2" / 33 x 23 x 5 cm) glass baking dish.
Dice all the vegetables. Eggplant: slice crosswise (no more than 1/2 inch / 1.25 cm thick), then pile 2-3 slices and dice. Zucchini: quarter them lengthwise then slice crosswise (no more than 1/2 inch / 1.25 cm thick). If the zucchini is plump, divide each half into thirds lengthwise before slicing. Tomatoes: halve the small ones, quarter the larger ones, lengthwise. Cut the fruit in bite-sized pieces.
Place all the vegetables and fruit, if using, in the baking dish, sprinkle the herb(s) and seasoning (or spices). Stir to mix. Place the baking dish in the oven. After 20 minutes, take the baking dish out of the oven and stir the vegetables. After another 5 minutes, check a piece of eggplant and a piece of zucchini: the dish may be done or may need a few more minutes.
When the vegetables are ready, take the baking dish out of the oven, sprinkle the sea salt and stir. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve out of the baking dish or transfer onto a serving dish and serve.
I confess that I eat the first portion straight out of the baking dish.
1 The novel's page on the author's website
2 Casseroles - Main courses for baby boomers in the 50’s, these classic American dishes are easy to prepare, low cost and nutritious [from the LA Times].
3 About Edox tomato
4 About Savory
5 Penzey's Arizona Dreaming Seasoning contains ancho chili pepper, black pepper, onion, garlic, paprika, spices, cumin, citric acid, Mexican oregano, cilantro, lemon peel, chipotle pepper, red pepper, jalapeño, cocoa and natural smoke flavoring. [I do not have any business relationship with the company. This is the product I use and I share the link as information.]
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the melanzane, zucchine e pomodori in teglia audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]
FTC disclosure: I have received the table linens free of charge from the manufacturer (la FABBRICA del LINO). I have not and will not receive any monetary compensation for presenting it on my blog. The experience shared and the opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.