"Where, I ask you, lovers of the arts, where are the male Muses?"
Monica Szabo is a moderately successful middle-aged painter when she jokingly poses her question to the audience at a gallery talk, hardly expecting a serious answer. B, a wealthy futures trader and admirer of Monica's work, has a serious plan in mind. B offers to become Monica's muse, providing her with time, space, money and sex - everything she needs to create great art.
Novel Food 2010 is Mary Gordon's Spending, a thoughtful, witty story of the connection between art, money, and desire. Gordon's imagery is lush and vivid, and the meals in Spending are richly detailed. There's Monica and B's first meal of bouillabaisse, "tomatoes and soft flesh of once-shelled creatures"; a post-Thanksgiving dinner of shrimp with garlic and parsley, followed by pasta con aglio ed olio; and a celebratory feast with a three-colored seafood terrine and plum tart with almond cream.
With so many meals to draw from, I couldn't decide. Instead, I took one passage with vivid imagery and used it as inspiration:
"I was talking about a painting of mine called The Artist's Muse. In the background there's a lot of emptiness. De Chirico emptiness, that kind of spacy gray green. And a shadow of a table. In the foreground, a man wearing only his underwear, a very beautiful pair of green and white striped silk boxer shorts. I had a wonderful time doing those shorts, the pearliness of the white, absorbing that dim light, and the green stripes, the green of an Anjou pear, but waxier, relating to the empty green of the background."
I decided to create a dish in green and white. A dish the color of money.
First, the green: I had oh-so-elusive fresh English peas, and I wanted a dish that would flatter them. I usually hesitate to cook fresh English peas in anything other than risi e bisi or soup, because anything more elaborate seems like overkill, but it occurred to me that I could make mezzelune, the stuffed pasta that are shaped like half-moons, and fill them with a simple puree of peas with onion, butter, and a touch of mint. Once I decided on pasta, the white followed easily: a cream sauce with mild spring onions and a touch of white wine.
The finished dish is simple but luxurious: a sweet, buttery pea puree, wrapped in fresh pasta, cloaked in a sauce of spring onions and cream. I don't know if Monica would want to paint it, but I hope she wouldn't think twice before picking up a fork and digging in.
Fresh Pea Mezzelune with Spring Onion Cream Sauce
(Serves one, with leftovers. Mezzelune can be frozen.)
To make the filling, start by shelling a pound of fresh English peas. Rinse and set aside.
Heat a knob of butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with lid. Add one finely chopped white onion, and cook until translucent. Add the peas, a generous pinch of salt, and a sprig of fresh mint (or a few leaves of dried). Cover with water. Simmer with lid on until the peas are tender and slightly wrinkled. Remove the lid and reduce until there is just a little liquid in the pan. Allow the peas to cool, then puree with an immersion blender or food processor.
To make the pasta dough, dump one cup of flour on a clean countertop. Make a well; add two egg yolks, a glug of olive oil, a little water, and a pinch of salt. Knead together until you have a smooth, pliable dough. Wrap in plastic wrap. Leave in the fridge to rest for at least an hour.
(For a detailed guide to making fresh pasta, go here.)
To assemble, use a pasta machine to roll out sheets on the thinnest setting. Cut out rounds with a ravioli stamp or cookie cutter. Place a teaspoon of filling on a round, then fold over to form a half-moon. Pinch the edges to seal. Repeat until you run out of filling. Set the filled pasta on baking sheets. Pasta may be frozen at this stage.
To make the dish, set a pot of salted water on to boil. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, melt a tiny dab of butter over low heat. Add two finely chopped spring onions (white bulb and pale green stem) and a pinch of coarse salt.
Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and fragrant. Add a splash of white wine and allow it to simmer until the alcohol fumes dissipate. Add three-quarters of a cup of heavy cream. Let the mixture simmer, but do not boil.
Once the salted water hits a rolling boil, cook the mezzelune a dozen at a time for two to three minutes (a little longer if they're frozen.) Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and add to the pan with the sauce. When all the mezzelune are in the pan, the sauce will have thickened slightly. Turn off the heat.
Serve in big bowls, garnished with a sprig of something green.