Great literature needs great food

I love my book club! For the past three years I’ve been honored to be able to discuss books and life with a fabulous, interesting group of women that I look forward to seeing every six weeks or so. This literary chavurah has been meeting consistently for 20 years and has been a means of friendship and support for weddings, raising children, divorces, b’nai mitzvah, deaths and life in general.

Our reading list is varied, mostly involving novels, but the nonfiction selections have been fascinating as well and, most importantly, have generated lively and topical discussions. The most debated books have involved religion; in the last two years we’ve read “Under the Banner of Heaven,” by Jon Krakauer, and “The End of Faith,” by Sam Harris.

Most recently, we read two fiction works, both of which took place during World War II in Europe. “Suite Française” is a collection of novellas written by Irene Némirovsky, a Russian Jew living in Paris. She was deported and subsequently murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, but her works were published posthumously. The edition includes the author’s notes on her writing and correspondence from 1936 to her death in 1942.

Last month it was my turn to host the group, and the novel we read was “A Thread of Grace,” by Mary Doria Russell. This historical novel, a complex and tragic story, discusses the righteous Italians who hid and protected 40,000 Jews from being deported to work camps and executed.

Our tradition is that the person who hosts the meeting will provide dinner. Usually the meal reflects some aspect of the book being discussed. I put together a meal reflecting the rustic food of Northern Italy, where the novel takes place. Although the book we read was heartbreaking, we were able to take comfort in each other’s company and friendship. Sharing a meal always seems to soothe souls as well.

Braised Cabbage

Serves 8

4 Tbs. olive oil

1 head cabbage, cored and shredded

1/2 cup white wine

salt and pepper

2 Tbs. white vinegar

Heat olive oil in saucepan. Add cabbage and wine. Simmer covered for 20 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper. Just before serving, mix in vinegar. Serve warm.

Ligurian Vegetable Soup

Serves 8

4 Tbs. olive oil

2 leeks, cleaned and sliced, white part only

3 shallots, chopped

1/2 red onion, chopped

1 lb. tiny red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces

4 carrots, peeled and sliced

4 stalks celery, cleaned and sliced

10 cups vegetable stock

2 zucchini

2 cans unsalted, drained garbanzo beans

8 large chard leaves, ribs removed and shredded

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot. Add the leeks, shallots, onion, potatoes, carrots and celery and sauté for 10 minutes, or until the leeks and onions begin to brown. Add the stock, cover the pot partially, and cook until vegetables are soft. Just before serving, bring the soup to a boil and taste for salt and pepper. Drop in the zucchini, garbanzo beans and chard and cook for 1 minute. Serve with pesto.


Makes about 3/4 cup

3 cloves garlic

2 cups basil leaves salt

1/2 cup pine nuts pepper

1/2 cup grated (not shredded) real Italian Parmesan

1/2 cup olive oil

Chop the garlic, basil, salt, pine nuts and pepper in a food processor. Add the Parmesan and mix well. Drizzle in the olive oil and process to a smooth paste. Serve with Ligurian Vegetable Soup.

Rebecca Ets-Hokin is a certified culinary professional. Visit her Web site at She can be reached at [email protected].