Cucina Verite: Mostly Martha

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Too many cooks make one lovely soup
I love to serve them roasted.
It gives them a more robust taste.
A wonderful side dish would be ravioli with boletus --
truffles with wild mushrooms
or chanterelles
depending on the season.
But you need a good pigeon.
It must be meaty or it'll dry out.
You could also cook them in a pig's bladder
in Madiera, cognac, and port wine.


Thus begins German director Sandra Nettlebeck's Bella Martha (released as Mostly Martha in English, in 2001) with chef Martha Klein's monologue over a black screen. Fade up, and we find her in a therapist's office, lying horizontal on a white couch.  "Please go on....," the good doctor murmurs, but as Martha launches into another round of free food associations, he stops her. "Why have you come to therapy?" he asks pointedly. Apart from the fact that her boss has threatened to fire her if she doesn't get help with her temper, Martha has no idea.

It took a movie like Mostly Martha to make me realize what a fully sensual appreciation of food might look like. Martha's monologues about food are poetry, and so is the opening montage of hands chopping vegetables, peeling shallots, dropping balls of gnocchi into a boiling pot, zesting a lemon,  shucking scallops. Is food preparation the only art that truly involves all five senses? The eye, the tongue, the ear and the nose are obviously integral, but I'd forgotten how important touch is to cooking, how much the cook gauges by feel.

Mostly Martha went immediately to the top of my favorite food films. I was  charmed, but weirdly, the critics were wildly divided on it. The plot involves a niece who comes to live with her after Martha's sister is killed in a car accident; Martha is thoroughly flummoxed by the prospect of raising a kid. It all works out in the end, as does the romance with an Italian chef who invades her kitchen, but it's the beautifully filmed cooking scenes (the cooks wearing white in a white kitchen, like angels), set to great songs by Paulo Conte and others, that you really savor.  The script was remade in America as No Reservations with Catherine Zeta Jones in 2007. Order them both from netflix.

Another of Martha's interior monologues: "One knows a good chef by the quality of his simplest dishes. Take for instance, salmon in a light basil sauce. Most people think it's no big deal and put it on the menu. But frying or steaming a salmon just right and putting the right amount of salt and spices in the sauce is very difficult.  In this recipe, there's nothing to distract you. No design. No exotic ingredient. There's only the fish. And the sauce. The fish and the sauce."

Want dinner and a movie? Hit the jump for a recipe for salmon with basil cream sauce from Ellen Brown's "Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook."
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Martha serves hers over asparagus
Ingredients:

2 lbs. salmon fillets
1 1/2 T unsalted butter
3 shallots, peeled and minced
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup light cream
1 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 t freshly ground white pepper
1/4 t salt, or to taste

Cut the salmon into 6 equal serving pieces, wash and pat dry on paper towels. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sear the salmon on each side for about 2 to 3 minutes, keeping the center slightly rare since the fish will continue to cook after it is taken from the pan.

Remove the fish from the pan with a slotted spatula and keep warm. Reduce the heat to low and add the shallots and garlic to the pan. Saute, stirring frquently, for 5 minutes. Add the basil, parsley, wine, cream, lemon juice, pepper and salt to the pan and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the mixture is reduced by half.

Taste for seasoning, adding pepper and salt as needed.

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