Happy New Year and Welcome Back to Dinner and a Book Club!
In the cold of winter, we're featuring three historical fiction books, some nibbles for discussing books and/or watching the Super Bowl, and a recipe for scallops.
Mistress of the Art of Death (2007)
Historical Fiction, Set in 12th c. Cambridge, England
National Best Seller: The New York Times called it a “vibrant medieval mystery...[it] outdoes the competition."
Four children have been murdered and the Jewish community is being blamed. Because he needs their tax revenue, King Henry II protects them by hiding them in a castle fortress. He asks his cousin, King of Sicily (home of Salerno’s School of Medicine and some of the best medical experts in Europe), to send the very best master of the art of death (a medical examiner) to solve the crime. He receives Adelia, ‘mistress’ of the art of death, and two companions: Simon, a Jew, and Mansur, a Moor.
As they try to unravel the mystery of the Cambridge murders, they struggle to understand Cambridge's atmosphere of religious mistrust—far from the familiar tolerance of Salerno.
Prevalent superstitions force Adelia to protect herself against accusations of witchcraft. Not able to reveal herself as the doctor, she poses as an interpreter to the ‘male examiner’ who does not speak English. Gender and religious stereotypes are challenged throughout as the search goes behind closed church and nunnery doors and into dark sections of Cambridge to find the killer.
The book is totally engaging—the mystery, the descriptions of the crusading culture, of Adelia's medical training in Salerno, and of Jewish-Christian interactions in twelfth-century England.
It works well as a stand-alone novel, but there are three more in the series for those who love it as much as I do.
All the Light We Cannot See (2014)
Historical Fiction, Set in France, WW2
NY Times bestseller, winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.
The author references the title to the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum, which are, of course, beyond the ability of the human eye to see. Radio waves are most relevant to the story. He also suggests its relationship to the countless invisible stories buried within WWII. And it is a reminder that we focus on only a small fraction of the total spectrum of possibility.
1934. Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a six-year-old blind girl is living in Paris with her father, the master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. The purported Sea of Flames gem, hidden within the museum, is said to grant immortality and endless misfortune to those around the owner. Allegedly, its rightful owner is the ocean, and its return there is the only way to end the curse.
Very bright Werner Pfennig, an 8-year-old orphan in the German coal-mining town of Zollverein, has a natural skill for repairing radios. Finding a broken one, he fixes it and uses it to hear transmitted science and music programs.
1940. Germany invades France and Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo to the home of her great-uncle Etienne. A recluse and shellshocked veteran of the Great War, he broadcasts old piano music records of his dead brother across Europe.
Werner’s high technical capability awards him entry into a boarding school that teaches Nazi values. He is conscripted into the Army and is placed in the Wehrmacht, tracking enemy signals while he quietly begins to question everything he’s being taught.
The radio broadcasts (which have expanded to include secret messages alongside the piano music) and the Sea of Flames gem play prominent roles as the worlds of the two teenagers, both attempting to survive the devastation of World War II, come together in occupied France.
I felt totally absorbed … reality combined with mystery.
Girl With a Pearl Earring (1999)
ProWritingAid: Best Historical Fictional Books of All Time
2001 American Library Association: Best Book for Young Adults
Historical Fiction, set in 17th c Delft, Holland
The Painting (c.1665, Delft, Holland). Perhaps the most famous of Johannes Vermeer’s paintings, it hangs in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. It is not a portrait, but rather a painting of an imaginary figure. In the art world, this kind of painting is known as a ‘tronie.’
The idea of a tronie, for me, enhanced my understanding of historical fiction. At the center of every such novel lies a tronie—the imaginary creation of the author. But every historical fiction also contains a portrait—the historical fact that surrounds the story. I found this parallel to be fascinating.
1664. Delft, Holland. Griet, 16, is compelled to leave her home and work as a maid in the home of Vermeer. Her family’s precarious financial situation is due to a workplace accident that has blinded her father.
The immense servant workload; the attitude of class distinction; the 1664 plague; the lecherous advances to a servant by a wealthy patron; and the work in a butcher’s shop, provide part of the portrait.
Through it all, the author weaves the tronie: the fictionalized story of Griet in which Vermeer recognizes Griet’s capability as well as her beauty as she cleans his studio. Their relationship grows and Vermeer eventually has Griet sit for a painting while wearing his wife’s pearl earrings.
The possibility of discovery and the dependency of Griet on the upper class threatens not only her job but her entire future.
I was totally drawn into the story around this magnificent painting with its ‘portrait’ of Vermeer, Delft, and 17th-century culture—along with its ‘tronie’ of Griet and the events that led to her sitting for Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Nibbles While Discussing Books or Watching the Super Bowl
Healthy, tasty, inexpensive
(Organic kernels, while a bit more expensive, are healthiest)
Better tasting and better for you than microwave and/or movie theatre popcorn, which are typically made with refined oils, butter-flavor chemicals, and preservatives.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or virgin coconut oil
½ cup popcorn kernels, divided
Salt, to taste
A serving bowl near the stove.
A good, heavy-bottomed, lidded saucepan that distributes heat evenly will avoid hot spots and burned popcorn.
Step 1. In that saucepan, over medium heat, combine the oil and 2 popcorn kernels. Place the lid and wait a few minutes for the kernels to pop.
Step 2. Once they do, remove the pot from the heat, take out the two popped kernels and pour in the other kernels. Replace the lid and distribute the kernels evenly with a little shaking of the pot. Then let the pot rest for a minute to prevent the oil from getting too hot before the kernels are ready to pop.
Step 3. Return the heat to medium, replace the pot on the burner and continue cooking the popcorn, carefully and gently shaking the pot occasionally to cook the kernels evenly. When the kernels start popping, tip the lid slightly to allow steam to escape. (While continuing to cook, if the popcorn tries to overflow the pot, just tip the upper portion of popcorn into your bowl and return the pot to the heat.)
Step 4. When the popping sound slows to about one pop per every few seconds, remove the lid and dump the popcorn into your serving bowl. Sprinkle the popcorn with a couple pinches of salt, to taste, and any other topping you would like such as melted butter. Toss the popcorn and serve immediately, for best flavor and texture.
Using a microplane or a fine grater, grate lemon zest and Parmesan cheese over the popcorn to taste.
Add freshly cracked pepper and fine grain sea salt to taste.
Zest of one small lemon (I prefer healthy organic)
¼ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
Fine-grain sea salt, to taste
This 3-quart saucepan with lid, as the recipe recommends, conducts heat evenly and efficiently. Local hot spots do not develop to burn contents. Chemically nonreactive, it will not change the taste or edibility of food.
I made these recently for a gathering and they were a big hit. When the gathering ended, it became a takeout until the bowl was empty. Delicious by themselves, they also make wonderful additions to salads and snack mixes.
Made from maple syrup rather than refined sugar, the pecans are shiny and crisp, but not sticky.
¼ cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
1 ½ teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (or 1 tablespoon bourbon - my preference)
Scant ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional, for some heat)
3 cups raw pecan halves
Preheat the oven to 325° F.
Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat to be sure the maple syrup doesn’t get stuck to the pan. (I have never had a stick-problem.)
In a medium bowl, combine the maple syrup, melted butter, salt, vanilla (or bourbon-my favorite) and blend with a whisk. Add the pecans and stir to coat.
Spread the mixed pecans onto the prepared baking sheet in a single layer
Bake, stirring after the first 10 minutes and every 5 minutes thereafter, until almost no maple syrup remains on the parchment paper and the nuts are deeply golden, a total of 23 to 30 minutes, depending on your oven. (The maple syrup coating will be a little sticky right out of the oven, but will harden as the pecans cool.)
Remove from the oven. Stir the pecans one more time, and spread them into an even layer across the pan. Let them cool down for about 10 minutes, then, while the nuts are still warm, carefully separate any large clumps. Let the pecans cool completely on the pan.
If they last that long, the candied pecans will keep for up to 2 months in a sealed bag at room temperature.
If you prefer savory, these are also enjoyed at our gatherings.
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1/2 cup sugar
2 large egg whites
5 cups (20 ounces) pecans
Preheat the oven to 300° F.
Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a bowl, combine salt, cayenne pepper, paprika, and sugar.
In a medium bowl, whisk egg whites until foamy. Whisk in spice mixture. Stir in pecans.
Spread coated pecans in a single layer onto the baking sheets.
Bake for about 15 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 250 degrees. Rotate the sheets in oven, and cook for another 10 minutes.
Immediately spread pecans in a single layer on clean parchment paper; let cool. Serve or store.
Pecans will keep, in an airtight container, up to 1 week at room temperature.
Big enough for either pecan recipe, this large baking sheet has a shallow lip that will prevent the pecans from sliding off.
Lime Ginger Scallop Saute
(My Very Favorite Way to Prepare and Eat Scallops)
1 T. olive oil
1 T. unsalted butter
1 pound sea scallops, patted dry
3 T. fresh lime juice
4 T. Lime Ginger Butter, chilled (recipe follows)
1/3 cup walnut halves, lighted toasted
Chopped fresh parsley for garnish
LIME GINGER BUTTER:
4 T. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 t. grated lime zest
1 t. ground ginger
1/2 t. salt
Freshly ground black pepper, taste
Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet over high heat. Add the scallops and cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Pour off the fat.
Stir in the lime juice and cook 1 minute. Then lower the heat and stir in the Lime Ginger Butter, 1 T at a time. Cook until a thick sauce forms. Stir in the walnuts, sprinkle with parsley, and serve.
LIME GINGER BUTTER:
Stir all the ingredients together until smooth. Shape into a cylinder 2 1/2 inches in diameter and wrap in foil or plastic wrap. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour.
This multi-clad stainless steel skillet heats evenly with no hot spots, has a large, flat cooking service to sear while allowing access food with its sloped sides.
For more great book recommendations, visit Dragon Authors.
Flourish Vectors by Vecteezy