This case is culinary: Commissario's favorites

Donna Leon , creator of Commissario Brunetti, is the author of 19 mysteries featuring the food-loving Venetian detective.
Donna Leon , creator of Commissario Brunetti, is the author of 19 mysteries featuring the food-loving Venetian detective.
Posted: July 08, 2010

She inspired William Shakespeare, Henry James, and Thomas Mann.

She gave us Casanova and Marco Polo; Shylock, Pinocchio, and Vivaldi; Carnivale and La Biennale.

And even today, as she sinks ever so slowly beneath the weight of her own water, Venice mesmerizes.

Some 25 years ago, an English teacher and opera expert originally from Montclair, N.J., felt the lure of the lagoons and adopted Venice as her home.

Now Donna Leon, 67, is the celebrated author of 19 international best sellers (more than two million sold) featuring a shrewd but principled police detective by the name of Guido Brunetti - and she is finally rewarding her readers with a cookbook of his favorite recipes.

Brunetti, introduced in 1992 in Death at La Fenice (the Venice opera house), caught on as a character in part because he was so well drawn as a family man with a life outside his intriguing homicide cases. A German television series gave him even greater visibility, and tourists to Venice can even take Brunetti's Walking Tour of sites mentioned in Leon's novels.

From the first, the complex commissario was often seen lingering over lunches and even lengthier dinners with his wife, Paola, daughter, Chiara, and son, Raffi.

Brunetti's mother makes a great lasagna, we learn in Leon's Through a Glass, Darkly, and in A Noble Radiance, Paola teaches Chiara to make ravioli con funghi. Fearful that the pasta "will have the consistency of wallpaper glue," Brunetti offers to take the family out for pizza instead.

To Leon, Brunetti's appreciation of good food does not make him a gastronome. He does not have a uniquely refined palate. He is merely a Venetian, and as such, he savors every bite. Whether at home with Paola or at a cicchetti bar with a colleague, Brunetti paces himself, always leaving time for a coffee, some wine or grappa.

By the fourth Brunetti mystery, fans were taking notice of the detective's many meals and requesting recipes.

Finally, Leon agreed. She collaborated with her friend Roberta Pianaro, a talented home cook and lifelong Venetian, to create Brunetti's Cookbook (Atlantic Monthly Press).

"At first, the response from readers surprised me, for there had been nothing intentional about the placement of meals in the books," Leon writes in the cookbook's introduction. "These novels deal to a certain degree with family life in Venice, and this was the way that I had observed Venetians to eat."

Leon's many Japanese and British readers, for example, were much more apt to notice her frequent descriptions of Brunetti's meals than her Italian readers.

"Though many Italians have read the books and remarked on them to me over the years, none has ever mentioned the presence of food: for them and for me, Brunetti's meals are simply a part of the culture."

To Italians, Leon writes, "Eating well is not an achievement, a cause for self-promotion and pride: it is simply something you do twice a day in a manner that will provide as much physical pleasure as possible."

When she first arrived in Italy, Leon says, everywhere she went she heard, " 'Mangia, mangia, ti fu bene,' or 'Eat, eat, it's good for you.' "

Soon she came to see the desire to see others well-fed as an act of love, "the most primitive manifestation of love of which we are capable."

In addition to the fictional detective's favorites (orecchiette with asparagus; artichokes stuffed with prosciutto; baked branzino), the cookbook contains excerpts from Leon's novels and her original essays on everyday life in contemporary Venice.

The book has no photographs of the finished dishes, but is dotted throughout with charming illustrations by Swiss children's book author Tatjana Hauptmann.

While the commissario is a native Venetian, Leon is part Irish, German, and Spanish and says she never considered herself a legitimate heir to Italy's food culture. As proof, in Brunetti's Cookbook, she reveals her Irish mother's "secret recipe" for cooking any and all vegetables:

"Open the can; pour contents into saucepan; add butter, boil until contents are reduced to a gray mush, add salt. Serve."


Orecchiette With Asparagus

Makes 4 servings

8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/3 cup finely chopped shallots

2 teaspoons salt

2 1/4 pounds medium-sized green asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces

4 hard-boiled eggs, shelled

12 ounces orecchiette

Freshly ground black pepper

2/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1. In a large nonstick pan or casserole, heat the oil and brown the shallots with the salt and 3 tablespoons of water. Add the asparagus and 3 1/2 cups of lukewarm water. Mix well and cook, covered, over moderate heat for about 30 minutes. The asparagus should be very tender, with a bit of juice at the bottom.

2. Put the eggs in a bowl, mash with a fork, and set aside.

3. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water, drain, and add to the pan with the asparagus. Stir, adding a pinch of pepper and the Parmesan, then pour into a hot serving dish and sprinkle with the mashed eggs.

- From Brunetti's Cookbook by Roberta Pianaro and Donna Leon (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Per serving: 757 calories, 29 grams protein, 71 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 40 grams fat, 224 milligrams cholesterol, 1,469 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.


Zucchini With Garlic and Parsley

Makes 4 servings

1 3/4 pounds zucchini

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3/4 cup onion, finely chopped

1 teaspoon salt

One handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped

Freshly ground black pepper

1. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, then slices crosswise.

2. Heat the oil in a nonstick casserole and fry the onion lightly with the salt, adding 3 tablespoons of water. When the onion is transparent, add the zucchini, cover, and cook over high heat for 10 minutes, stirring to avoid burning.

3. Remove the cover and add the parsley. Lower the heat and continue cooking for 10 minutes, adding hot water if needed. Add a good grind of pepper and serve.

- From Brunetti's Cookbook by Roberta Pianaro and Donna Leon (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Per serving: 228 calories, 3 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams sugar, 21 grams fat, no cholesterol, 607 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Spring Vegetable Stew

Makes 4 servings

2 eggplants

3 large ripe tomatoes

1 red bell pepper

1 yellow bell pepper

2 zucchini

2 white onions

1 hot fresh chili

1 teaspoon salt

8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/4 cup dry white wine

One sprig fresh parsley, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

1/2 cup dried black olives, pitted and chopped

1. Prepare the vegetables. Use only the skins of the eggplants, cut lengthwise in a thickness of about 1/3 inch, then into strips. Peel the tomatoes and cut them into chunks. Cut the peppers into pieces, slice the zucchini, and thinly slice the onions.

2. Place all the vegetables in a large nonstick casserole with the chili, salt, and oil. Cook over high heat for 20 minutes, stirring often. Add the wine, parsley, garlic, and olives. Stir and cook until the liquid is evaporated.

- From Brunetti's Cookbook by Roberta Pianaro and Donna Leon (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Per serving: 418 calories, 6 grams protein, 35 grams carbohydrates, 16 grams sugar, 31 grams fat, no cholesterol, 752 milligrams sodium, 14 grams dietary fiber.


Monkfish With Tomatoes

Makes 4 servings

3 pounds monkfish tails, each about 12 ounces

1/2 cup flour

8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 teaspoons salt

One pinch dried chili

1 pound tomatoes, peeled and chopped

One sprig fresh parsley, finely chopped

One handful fragrant fresh herbs (such as rosemary, thyme, marjoram)

1. Wash and dry the monkfish tails and coat them lightly with flour.

2. Heat the oil in a large nonstick casserole and fry the garlic lightly with the salt and the chili.

3. Add the tomatoes and cook until the sauce thickens, then add the fish and cook for 25 minutes, turning from time to time, and adding the parsley and other herbs five minutes before removing from the heat. Serve very hot.

- From Brunetti's Cookbook by Roberta Pianaro and Donna Leon (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Per serving: 583 calories, 52 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 34 grams fat, 85 milligrams cholesterol, 1,233 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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