Sunday, July 14, 2013

Beautiful Ruins and Classic Pesto

Bookcooker - Posted: 13 July 2013 


I must admit, there is no pesto mentioned in Jess Walter's wonderful novel Beautiful Ruins.  
The novel takes place both on Ligurian coast in the 1960's and in modern day Los Angeles.  Obviously, there is not much food in the Los Angeles part, but more disappointingly (only for purposes of this blog), there also is not much food in the Italy portions of the book.  The only mention of food that really stuck with me was the description of an unappetizing fish head soup.  Don't get me wrong, I love dishes made with "trash" ingredients, and I love a good culinary challenge, but fish head soup was not doing it for me.  So I googled around a bit, and it seemed like, in the middle of summer, a classic Ligurian pesto was in order.    
Sometimes the cover of a book really compels you to pick it up, and that was certainly the case of Jess Walters Beautiful Ruins.  The image on the cover conjures an atmospheric story set in the seaside Italian village of your dreams.  The fact that the book turned out to be something entirely different was unpleasant for only a minute, until the realization that the book was more much interesting than that hit.  Walters goes back and forth between 1962 on the Italian coast and modern day Los Angeles.  The modern day story is exactly what you would expect from a story about the movie industry - unfulfilled dreams, plastic surgery and cynicism. 
The story set in 1962 is also about Hollywood and the damage it can do.  A young blond actress flees the Rome set of Cleopatra and ends up in a tiny, isolated fishing village - Porto Vergogna.  No tourists come to this town unless they are lost or mistake it for the nearby and more picturesque town nearby with a similar name.  The young actress, Dee Moray, comes to Porto Vergogna and must stay at the only inn in town, the Hotel Adequate View.  

Here she meets Pasquale, a young man who has inherited the hotel from his parents.  His father has recently passed away and his mother has taken to her bed.  His witchy aunt is the hotel's cook and housekeeper.  Pasquale had other dreams, but the death of his father has forced him back to this small fishing village, and Dee Moray is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.  The two strike up an unlikely friendship - unlikely because they did not speak the same language.  Regardless, the two form some sort of bond, and Pasquale immediately seeks to protect Dee.  

It is a mystery how she got to the hotel, she soon reveals that she has been told by a doctor in Rome that she is dying of stomach cancer.   Once this is set up, the novel shifts forward 50 years to Los Angeles and the story of Claire, who was once an academic and is now a development assistant to the long past his prime producing legend Michael Deane.  Claire is unhappy with her work and in a troubled relationship with a scrub who is addicted to porn and strippers.   Her boss, Michael Deane is a cliche Hollywood producer - slimy, well coiffed and has had so much plastic surgery he doesn't look human.  Deane used to be a big deal and was responsible for some classic movie hits, but now he is making money on cheesy reality television.  Claire is about to give her notice to work in LA's version of academia when she embarks on her last "wild pitch Friday."  

Once a month, Deane allows anyone to come in and pitch ideas to Claire, who must sit through these random pitches and advance any thinks is worthy.  On this Friday, Claire meets two people who change the course of the story.  First, Shane, a "dude" type from the Pacific Northwest who lives his life by hokey sayings and is there to pitch the movie "Donner!" based on the famous story of survival cannibalism.  Also in Claire's office at the same time is Pasquale, now an old man, still with very little English in his vocabulary.  He has come to find Michael Deane, who those many years ago, was the man who put Dee Moray on that boat to nowhere, otherwise known as Porto Vergogna.  Shane, who spent a semester in Italy, becomes Pasquale's translator, and as a result is included in his quest, along with Michael Deane and Claire, to find Dee Moray.    
The novel moves back and forth between this journey and the full story, back in 1962, of what happened to Dee Moray and why.  Also weaved in is the story of a drug addicted grunge rock star, who also happens to be Dee's son.  Each of the characters Walter creates is interestingly flawed.   While the cover paints a beautiful picture, the story is really about how the events of the past never leave us and shape our lives.   Rather than an airy escapist novel, which is what I was expecting, it is something much deeper. 

Basil Pesto, adapted from Rustico Cooking

This is a simple and deliciously cheesy Pesto.   Because I was cheap, I substituted walnuts for the pine nuts, $15 + a pound is just too much for me!

1 cup plus 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup pine nuts (or substitute blanched almonds or walnuts)
2 and 1/2 cups fresh basil leaves
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 cup shredded Pecorino Romano

1.       Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a small skillet, add the nuts and toast/saute for 2 - 3 minutes.
2.       Add the nuts, along with the basic, garlic cloves and salt to a food processor or blender and blend into a fine paste.
3.       With the motor running, slowly add the 1 cup of oil.
4.       Add the cheese and pulse a few times to combine.
Serve with pasta, chicken, fish etc...

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