France and Italy get all the attention in food memoirs. Think about it– My Life in France, Under the Tuscan Sun, the part in Comfort Me with Apples where Ruth Reichl is doing Colman Andrews, Between Meals, Eat Pray Love, etc. There must be hundreds of food memoirs pontificating on the wonders of French and Italian cuisine. It gets tedious. Yes, we know France and Italy are fabulous, but too many other destinations get pushed under the carpet.
Berlin really got under my skin when I visited in 2004. It feels strangely empty– as large as two cities with the population of one. It takes awhile to travel between the vastly different neighborhoods, traversing parks and Cold War era no man’s lands. As a 20th Century history nerd, I was fascinated by Berlin’s historic sites, but it’s also a forward thinking place with a youthful Euro vibe. And I adore the unpretentious German tradition of sipping a stein of golden pilsner while snacking on sausages, pretzels, and sauerkraut.
So I was intrigued to read My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss, the blogger behind The Wednesday Chef. The daughter of an American father and an Italian mother, she chronicles her life growing up in Berlin, moving to Boston, moving back to Berlin, settling as a young adult in New York, and then finally moving back to Berlin in her thirties. Her father moved back to the United States after her parents divorced, and she led a disjointed existence pulled between her father in the United states, her mother in Berlin, and her Italian relatives. Each chapter is short, self-contained, and includes a recipe. Several of them detail her trips to visit relatives in Italy and her year studying in Paris to keep the food memoir purists satiated.
Above all, Weiss is completely relatable. Food memoirists aren’t the most self-aware bunch, often detailing their glamorous lives of cooking, dining, and travel. But even though Luisa lives the supposed dream (youth spent in New York City, food blogger turned writer, beautiful wedding in Italy to perfect guy) you don’t begrudge her for it. You cheer her on because she’s honest about all of the hard work and heartache she went through to get there. Ultimately, Weiss’s story is inspirational. She worked hard, trusted her gut, took big chances, and it paid off.
And if writing a vulnerable and heart felt memoir isn’t enough, Weiss also included over 40 recipes in the book. They could almost comprise a small cookbook by themselves! But I couldn’t help but ask myself– does every single important moment in your life actually relate to food somehow? Is that really how the world works? I can’t help but feel it’s a tad contrived.
But there’s no better person to include all of these recipes in a memoir. Weiss is a descriptive food writer. Every time I finished a chapter, I fought the urge to put the book down and make her food. She’s also an adventurous cook and baker, so her recipes aren’t boring tarts with stuff she made from the farmers market. Not that I wouldn’t happily eat that.
I made one of the simpler recipes from her book. This salad of roasted peppers, breadcrumbs, and anchovies is one of her Italian mother’s staple dishes. It maybe converted me to roasting my peppers in the oven instead of on the gas stove from now on.
Peperoni al Forno Conditi
- 2 to 3 slices stale white peasant bread
- 3 red bell peppers
- 3 yellow bell peppers
- 1/4 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and chopped
- 1/4 cup salt-cured capers, soaked and drained
- 3 anchovy fillets, minced
- 1 cup loosely packed flat-leaf parsley, minced
- 4 tablespoons best-quality olive oil, or more to taste
- Flaky salt, such as Maldon
1. Cut the stale bread into rough chunks and blitz in the food processor until they turn to coarse crumbs. Spread the crumbs on a plate and set aside to crisp up and dry out.
2.Heath the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Wash and dry the peppers and arrange them on the baking sheet. Put the sheet in the oven and bake for 45 minutes, turning the peppers every 10 to 15 minutes to make cure they cook evenly (I use my fingers, but you could also use cooking tongs). By the end of the cooking time, they should be blistered all over, and their juices bubbling.
3.Remove the baking sheet from the oven and let cool on a wire rack until you are able to handle the peppers. Set out a clean plate or bowl next to the baking sheet and pull the skin off the peppers, working over the aluminum foil. Take care when you “unplug” the stem of the pepper: hot steam or liquid usually comes gushing out. Your hands will become quite wet as you work; periodically dry them to facilitate cleaning the peppers. Transfer the peeled peppers, devoid of any seeds, to the plate or bowl. As you transfer the pieces of pepper, use your fingers to tear the flesh into thin strips. Discard the aluminum foil and the pepper trimmings.
4. Sprinkle the plate of peppers with the breadcrumbs, olives, anchovies if using, capers, and parsley, and drizzle the olive oil over the peppers. Mix gently, and then add a few pinches of flaky salt to taste. Serve right away or let sit at room temperature, covered, for up to 4 hours before serving. If you’re not going to serve the peppers right away, don’t sprinkle on the breadcrumbs until the last minute. That way they retain their crunch.
Disclaimer: Viking sent me a review copy of the book. I was not otherwise compensated to write this review.