BOOK: The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009) follows the members of a cooking class taught by Lillian, chef and owner of a popular restaurant that bears her name. As a girl, Lillian learned to cook from a kindly neighborhood woman known to the neighborhood children as Abuelita, who brought a sense of adventure and fun to food. Lillian learned so well that the meals she prepared at home started to pull her mother's eyes up from the books she habitually read while eating. Lillian seems to be teaching what the students already suspect — that food can satisfy more than mere hunger.
WHY READ? Bauermeister deftly combines romance, lyrical language and a dash of sentimentality with themes of love, hope and grief, producing a story that reveals the dark hungers her students harbor. Tom, for example, whose wife has died of cancer, relished the meals she used to prepare and seems to want to reproduce them, along with the love he has lost. Chloe, a lost young woman who wears too much eye makeup and meekly endures a thoughtless boyfriend, seeks a path to adulthood. Carl and Helen are patiently trying to simmer some bitterness from their long marriage. All are seeking the essential ingredients of happiness.
MAKE IT: In one scene Lillian teaches her students to make a pasta sauce that involves two curious tricks. Before sauteing the onions, garlic and meat (in this case, sausage), she dissolves a cube of dado — a sort of bouillon cube made of porcini mushrooms — in the hot oil. (Dado in Italian refers to each die in a pair of dice, or dadi.) Then, to prevent the red wine from making the meat taste acidic, she simmers it in milk until it turns grayish-white. Only then does she add the wine, along with tomatoes and tomato sauce, producing pasta that reduces the room to silence "interrupted only by the sounds of forks against plates and the occasional sigh of satisfaction."
KEEP IT SIMPLE: Instead of making a full meal, serve coffee mixed with the secret additive that Lillian learned to make from Abuelita. Make some orange peel curls with a zester and add them to whole milk in a saucepan. Add a cinnamon stick. Grate a piece of bittersweet chocolate into the milk as it heats. Add some anise. Add the heated milk to a mug half-filled with strong coffee. Top with freshly whipped cream. "What is that amazing smell?" Lillian's mother asked the first time Lillian made it for her. "Magic," Lillian answered. Serve with biscotti or Italian wedding cookies.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches popular book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.