Friday 20 June 2008

Novel Food 4: Drowned Broccoli

Food is so integral to our lives that it is easy to not even notice it. A self-confessed bibliophile, I find it difficult to rise to the challenge of cooking something relating to the literary world because I often don’t remember the food.

But when I saw that Simona of Briciole and Lisa of Champaign Taste are holding the Novel Food event again this month, I kept thinking about a moment in a novel I read some months ago, a moment that illustrated just what it is about literary food that makes it so easy to overlook.

The book is the Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. It is a beautifully written novel that tells the story of twins being born in 1964. The father, David, a doctor who delivers the twins, sees that his daughter has Down’s Syndrome and asks his nurse to take her to a home. Instead the nurse takes her to another town to raise as her own. David tells his wife, Nora, that their daughter has died.

Early in the novel, the sorrow of the mother’s loss has an impact on the relationship with her husband and her surviving son. The joy of new life and the depths of her grief are tangled up in confusion that means that nothing can be straightforward any more:

She kept on driving on the same narrow rainy streets, back to their old house, where she had decorated the nursery with such innocent hope, where she’d sat nursing Paul in the dark. She and David had agreed about the wisdom of moving away, but the truth was she could not bear the idea of selling this place. She still went there almost every day. Whatever life her daughter had known, whatever Nora had experienced of her daughter, had happened in that house. (p 83)

On their wedding anniversary, Nora cooks David his favourite meal but he gets caught up at work and is late home. She has organized for her sister to babysit and finds herself alone in the house, waiting to serve dinner that is growing cold and drying out:

It was after eight o’clock. The world had softened at the edges. She went back to the kitchen and stood at the stove, picking at the dried pork. She ate one of the potatoes straight from the pan, smashing it into the drippings with her fork. The broccoli cheese dish had curdled and was beginning to dry. (p 80)

The abandoned dinner has more meaning that just an empty stomach. It is not enough to just eat it. Nora is waiting to share it with her husband because the meal was made in search of romance and connection. To fail to arrive home for dinner shows a disregard for the woman’s cooking, her homemaking and her love. The food symbolises a hunger for attention and love. But it is the minute details of what she is eating that makes Nora seems real to the reader because it helps to create such a vivid picture of a moment in time.

As a vegetarian, I wouldn’t cook a traditional roast pork dinner but I was struck by the broccoli cheese and decided I would cook this for the event. However I have already posted about cauliflower cheese which is a standard side dish from my childhood. I wanted something a bit different to a cheese sauce poured over broccoli. After browsing some cookbooks, the options were broccoli with breadcrumbs and brie, broccoli cooked with a sauce made from a campbells’ soup and a Sicilian drowned broccoli. The last one piqued my interest.

I found it on a website called FX Cuisine.Com that had some interesting dishes. This one is from Catania in Sicily where it is called broccoli affogati, which translates as drowned broccoli. The broccoli is drowned in red wine. I was particularly delighted with the onions in the dish that turn a pleasing purple.

My version was a little lacking in seasoning. Fortunately I served it with some pumpkin chutney that perked it up but I have added a little sugar in the recipe to compensate. When I re-read the comments I noticed some discussion on how different type of wine affected the taste and thought maybe the cheap cab sav lacked a certain Silician style.

I would recommend this as an interesting way to eat broccoli. I suspect that Nora would have found it an exotic dish. But as in many of the older recipes I have encountered in looking at historic cookbooks recently, this is a traditional recipe with measurements that should be altered to suit each person. I suspect Nora would have understood this. After all, one of the messages of the Memory Keeper’s Daughter is that each individual is different. We all react to sorrow and hardship differently and similarly we find strength in different ways to help us cope.

Sicilian Drowned Broccoli
(from FX Cuisine)
Serves 2

1 tbsp olive oil
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
½ cup water
½ cup red wine (preferably Sicilian but I used a cab sav)
¼ tsp sugar or sweetener (optional)
100g shaved or grated pecorino or parmesan cheese

Heat oil in a medium saucepan and fry onions until soft but not brown. Add broccoli and stir one minute. Add water and bring to boil (I think this is what ‘ebullition’ means). Add wine and bring to boil. Cover and simmer about 15 minutes or til broccoli is just tender. Remove from the heat. Add cheese and toss with broccoli til cheese is just melting. Taste and add some sugar or more salty cheese as required. Serve as light meal with good toast, or as side dish or over pasta or crepes.

On the Stereo:
Scavenger: Walkabouts


  1. Interesting way to cook broccoli--that is one food I would never think of cooking with wine. And The Memory Keeper's Daughter sounds like such a lovely book, though so very sad. Does the mother ever find out about her lost daughter?

  2. A very nice presentation of a moving story. You made me want to read the book, definitely. Thanks for contributing to our event!

  3. Thanks for sharing those passages, you are so right. Food is not just for eating, it is for sharing and enjoying. Without those elements, it is so sad!

  4. I have never heard of broccoli cheese before, but it sounds delicious. The book soinds good too - I was sharing in her despair at she sat at the table waiting for her husband while the fruits of her labour disintegrated around her.

  5. thanks Ricki - I'd love to tell you what happens but I don't want to spoil the story

    thanks Simona - glad to be able to participate in the event - great inspiration for me

    thanks Jen (I did get both messages - probably didn't appear because I am a control freak who moderates comments) - yes the image of the woman waiting was very sad

    Thanks Cakelaw - it is such a great way of illustrating her despair - I have cooked broccoli cheese in the same way I would do cauliflower cheese (but I think the cauliflower is superior in this dish)

  6. I loved that book too - so sad but so beautifully written. That meal scene is one of the most touching, isn't it? Will you ever be able to eat broccoli in a happy frame of mind again?!

  7. Each time I've tried to grab a copy of this book it has been sold out! Now I really wan to get a hold of a sucker for 'sad' tales!

    I bought some great organic broccoli yesterday after seeing this post. Shall make post haste. Gorgeous post, Johanna, as always.

  8. Thanks Lysy - it is a sad story but so many of the characters find great strengths in unexpected ways which I like.

    thanks Lucy - I have a copy I can loan you - it really is worth reading - it has sentences that make you re-read them just because the language is so gorgeous. Hope you enjoy the broccoli

  9. Mmm, the broccoli looks and sounds delish. (I've also seen that FX Cuisine site, by the way; he cooks up wonderful things, doesn't he, and the photos are amazing.) This book is intriguing; I, too, find myself wondering if the mother ever finds out about the daughter—but I suppose you shouldn't tell us! Thanks so much for bringing a wonderful book and dish to our event.

  10. Johanna this is a really wonderful post. I'll be looking for the book in the library. Thanks. And the broccoli looks fun and good.

  11. I've never seen this recipe in Sicily but it sounds great! My husband is not so found of broccoli but I think he might like this.

  12. thanks Lisa - would love to tell all about the book but don't like to spoil the story - yes the FX site has some interesting recipes

    thanks Tanna - hope your library has the book - it really is worth a read

    Thanks Nathalie - this was a particularly tasty way of eating broccoli - and you might find sicilian wine easier than in Australia.


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