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Cooking to the Book
May 11, 2005

“Do have some bangers and mash.”   I helped myself to sausage and garlic-y and good mashed potatoes.

“Won’t you have some cucumber sandwiches?”  I passed around the two plates I’d brought—one set of sandwiches had fresh basil; the other did not.  

It was quite a feast.  “English high tea,” one participant offered. The shortbread with orange marmalade—outstanding, and those strong English cheeses, Somerdale Red Dragon with whole mustard and ale (everyone’s favorite), Clawson Blue Stropshire and Somerdale Double Gloucester.  Yes, quite a feast.

But, no.  I wasn’t in a thatch-roofed teashop in the Cotswolds.  I was sitting in the Parish Hall of Bainbridge’s St. John’s Episcopal Church.  While, yes, we’d come to eat, we’d also come to share more than a meal.  We shared ideas and experience, in sights and a few laughs. 

I’d dropped in on a twice-monthly session of the St. John’s Book Club, a book club with a slightly different twist.  They don’t cook from a cookbook.  They cook to the book—the book they are reading.  This evening the group was discussing The Spiral Staircase, Karen Armstrong’s fascinating memoir of her transition from Roman Catholic nun to respected theological writer.  (She’s written fourteen other books including Islam: a Short History—which I read right after 9-11—and A History of God.)

The English delicacies were a salute to her origins and the setting of the book. Here’s a real treat, thanks to Phyllis Lucas.

Brown Sugar Shortbread

1 cup butter (no substitutes), softened

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

2 1/4 cups all purpose flour

Cream butter and sugar. Gradually stir in the flour. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth, about 3 minutes. Pat into a 1/3 in. thick rectangle measuring 11 in. x 8 in. Cut into 2 in. x 1 in. strips. Place 1 inch apart on ungreased

baking sheets. Prick with a fork. Bake at 300 degrees for 25 minutes or until bottom begins to brown. Cool for 5 minutes; remove to a wire rack to cool completely. 

Inspired menus

I asked my hosts to tell me more about the club, the books they’ve read and are going to read—and especially about the food they’ve brought.  Cathy Stevens, who first told me about this interesting group, explained that folks from the community gather on the first and third Sunday evenings each month to share a meal and a book.  You certainly don’t need to be a member of St. John’s to be a participant.

The books are announced well in advance, but the menu isn’t.  Most members bring a dish inspired by the book, but there’s no coordination—which adds to the fun.

I asked about good recipes from past books. 

No surprise.  The month they discussed Dan Brown’s (he of The DaVinci Code) Angels and Demons, dessert was angel-food cake and chocolate cake.  “Maybe not Devil’s Food Cake,” Cathy says, “ but close enough.”  I wonder if they had devilled eggs.

      Naturally, when they took up The Secret Life of Bees, biscuits and sweet honey topped the menu.   And, this past April when they studied The Bookeseller of Kabul, hummus with pita chips started the discussion off, but the highlight was the “yummy figs with almond and chocolate” that Sharon Faulk contributed.  Now that she’s shared the recipe with me, I’ve got to read that book.   Sharon told me she chose the recipe because it reminded her of some of the sweets that might have been served for a very special occasion described in the book. 

Figs stuffed with Chocolate and Almonds

(Adapted from Taverna - the Best of Casual Mediterranean Cooking by Joyce

Goldstein)

1/2 cup slivered almonds, plus 12 whole almonds

1/4 cup sugar (Sharon used unrefined sugar)

2 oz. semisweet chocolate

12 large dried figs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Spread slivered and whole almonds on a baking

sheet, keeping them separate.  Bake until fragrant, 8-10 min.  Let

cool.  Set aside the 12 whole almonds.  Leave the oven set at 350 degrees.

In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, combine the sugar,

slivered almonds and the chocolate.  Use rapid on-off pulses to form a

coarse paste.  Cut off the stems from the figs.  Using a small, sharp knife, cut a small slit 1 inch deep in the top of each fig.  Using a small spoon, stuff each slit with about 1 teaspoon of the almond-chocolate mixture.  Pinch the opening closed.  As the figs are stuffed, place them on a baking sheet, stem sides up. Bake for 5 minutes.  Turn the figs over and continue to bake until softened, about 5 minutes longer.  Remove from the oven and press a whole almond into the slit.  Serve warm or at room temperature.    

Sharon offered me some other tips on making the delicacy.  “I bought the biggest figs I could find (at the New Leaf Market in Tallahassee), and I still had lots of filling left over.   If I had bought more figs, I could have made almost 8 to 10 more with the extra filling.  I also found I had to soak the figs in very hot water for a short time to get them pliable enough to work with.  I patted them dry before I tried to stuff them.  After I cut the slit, I took a 1/2 teaspoon measuring spoon and slipped it in the slit and pressed against the inside of the figs to try to make more of a receptacle for the filling.”

One of Cathy’s favorite books is Waiting for Snow in Havana.  Eggplant plays an important—and humorous role—in the book, Cathy told me.  But she wouldn’t tell me the story.  Guess I’ll have to read that one, too.

Cuban eggplant

(adapted from Cocina Cubana Club)

3 medium sized eggplants

1/2 lb ground chuck or round (or ground turkey)

1-1/2 cups minced onions

6 Tbsp butter

3 cups herbed bread stuffing

1-1/2 cup milk (or substitute tomato sauce)

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Parmesan cheese (optional)

Sauté the onion in the butter in a 9" skillet for a few minutes, until onions are slightly translucent. Add the ground beef or turkey, and cook, stirring constantly, for about 10 minutes.

Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise. Scoop the center out and reserve for the filling, leaving 1/4" around the skin. Boil (yes, boil) the skins for about 5 minutes. Place skins on a cookie sheet and drain them on several layers of paper towels.

   Add the reserved eggplant centers to the skillet and cook until tender. Remove the skillet from heat and while piping hot, add 1-1/2 cup bread stuffing, seasonings and milk. Let it cool for 10 minutes.

Fill the eggplant skins with this mixture, being very careful not to break them. Sprinkle with the rest of the herbed bread stuffing and parmesan cheese.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and bake the stuffed eggplants for about 20 minutes.

Joining up

If you find this all as intriguing as I do, you may want to drop by some Sunday evening—read the book first, so you can figure out just the right dish to bring.

If you want to know more you can call St. John’s Episcopal Church at 246-3554 or e-mail the club at stjohnsbookclub@bellsouth.net.

The selection for June is Gilead, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in Iowa.  The first meeting will be Sunday, June 5 at 6 p.m.   Hmmm, I’m thinking maybe corn on the cob.  For July, it’ll be more of a challenge when the book is God: Stories.   It’s a short story anthology featuring many famous and outstanding writers.  Maybe I’ll prepare some ambrosia!


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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network