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Monday, May 22, 2017

Holy $moke by Derek Robinson

Hungry for a book that snaps your eyes open and dares you to put it down?  Here’s a tip!  Holy $moke, by my favorite living writer, Derek Robinson.  Holy $moke is a smorgasbord of spies, intrigue, laugh out loud fun, and indelible and unlikely characters, all driven by a swiftly moving plot.

About time a book came along that is so startlingly original that I forgot about my afternoon nap and my before dinner cocktail.  All done without the clichés of murder, seduction and gunnery.  Wait a sec…no sex, blood, violence and still spellbinding???  Let me give you the whole picture.  My favorite writer doesn’t depend on weepy and psychologically damaged characters either.

Let’s set the stage.  As World War II ebbs toward its ragged conclusion. Allied forces are advancing by fits and starts through Italy. Southern Italy is liberated, but no one is quite sure what’s filling the vacuum. In the north, German forces are putting up a hell of a fight.  In Rome, the fascist government is deposed, leaving a political and commercial void in its wake.  Ordinary Romans try desperately to put food in the mouths of their families and gather together the shards of their war shattered lives. 

Meanwhile, General “Wild Bill” Donovan, the brainy, bellicose founder and leader of the Office of Strategic Services has his OSS agents scouring the city for leftover scraps of intelligence.  He’s not messing around and neither are his underlings, who haven’t produced viable information in ages.  The pressure is on.  The message is clear:  find new veins of intelligence gold, or find yourself banished to some backwater, where you’ll wait out the war filling out forms and filling filing cabinets, while your brain atrophies and your raw fingertips bleed.

Enter Virgilio del Pronto, an out of work writer, recently released from prison and looking to restart his so-so career.  With Rome’s newspapers and magazines in ruins, finding a writing job is damn near impossible. Plus, more than just an empty belly is pressuring him.  There’s Virgilio’s caustic wife, an unpleasant person in the best of times, who never lets him forget he’s unemployed.  “How lucky I was to marry a writer…Instead of a ditch digger who brought home a wage.”  Yes, I often identify with that.

But some things Virgilio has in abundance are acquaintances, all of whom are very aware of his fluid imagination and gift for the written word.  We’d call his approach ‘networking.’  He calls it survival.

Then, out of the blue, with persistence and a truckload of luck, Virgilio strikes gold.  A vein of it.  And it’s just what the American OSS agents need.

Robinson mines history and inserts vivid strands of humor into another of his seamlessly free flowing tales of the improbable. Reminiscent of his Eldorado series (The Eldorado Network, Operation Bamboozle, Artillery of Lies, and Red Rag Blues), Holy $moke leads you through a neatly constructed and mesmerizing sequence of events, all founded on equally improbable truth.  Along the way, he paints a clear picture of life under Allied occupation, while weaving a magnetic tale of Vatican intrigues, including oddities such as the German Ambassador playing tennis with the Japanese Ambassador.  Yes, even after Rome’s liberation, Axis Ambassadors to the papal enclave still played on.

All of this is preposterous, yet in large measure it happened.  You’ll be turning pages and chuckling as Derek Robinson leads you through this romp of a novel!  Pick up your copy early in the day; otherwise you’re going to lose sleep! 

I always read Derek Robinson’s books twice.  Once for enjoyment and again for even more enjoyment!

Check out his web site: or order directly from the author at;

Although Holy $moke is self-published, don’t forget to look for his other supremely entertaining books on or  There must be twenty, both novels and non-fiction. His series of flying novels, from both World War I and II are the best I’ve ever read.  But, I warn you, all his books are as addictive as potato chips at a cocktail party and while you’re laughing and eagerly flipping pages, you’re also getting sneaky glimpses into real, unvarnished history!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Ligurian Cuisine: Tarta di Limone

Mother’s Day is upon us.  Although my mother has passed on, she’s with me everyday, and especially every time I step in the kitchen.  Even as a small child, often I was right there by her side, stirring this or pouring that.  I knew cup and teaspoon and tablespoon measures before I could read. My mother also showed me how to measure spoonfuls by the open palm, that-looks-about-right method.  One of her specialties was Lemon cake.  Gracious, I can still taste that lemony flavor that permeated my childhood dreams.  I was a championship bowl licker.

So, when I got to Cinque Terre and found out we would be making Tarta di Lemone with our hostess, Daniella, I found myself convulsed with inner turmoil.  You know the feeling: this can’t be as good as my mother’s, but I have to be nice to my hostess.  No need to fret, and one check of Daniella’s recipe will tell you why.  My mother’s was made with real lemons and no shortcuts.  No cake mix. No lemon curd from a can, or squirts of lemon juice from a plastic bottle.  Ditto in Daniella’s kitchen!  With just the heavenly aroma, you can instantly tell a cake made with fresh ingredients. Oh, my goodness!

So let’s get back to Cinque Terre and the task at hand.  Tarta di Lemone.  A quick check of the recipe and ingredients tells the story.

This cake goes together like a dream…a dream of my mother’s kitchen!

Preheat oven to 325
baking time 50 minutes

In a small bowl mix together:

1 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
half tsp salt

In a small bowl mix together:

¼ cup yogurt (or milk)
1 tsp vanilla

In a medium bowl cream together: (I used a handheld, electric mixer)

1 stick butter (softened)
¾ cup sugar plus 2 T
zest of 2 lemons

Add 2 eggs one at a time and mix well after each.

Alternating, add the flour and yogurt mixtures to the butter/sugar mixture, then add 2 T fresh lemon juice.  (About one lemon’s worth)  Mix well.  You’ll have a light, fluffy batter.

Put the batter in a buttered/floured loaf pan and bake until a knife comes out clean.  Note: in my oven, the cake needed about seven minutes longer to bake. Let the cake cool 10 minutes then invert onto a rack. 

Slice the cake and pair it with berries and whipped cream.  And, don’t you dare use a can of pre-whipped cream…or sin of sins, Cool Fluff!

In this recipe, the cake’s deep lemon flavor isn’t overpowered by sugar and I like to keep it that way.  No icing.  Let the whipped cream and berries do their work of enhancing and adding depth to the flavor. Your only other job is to have a glass of milk close at hand…make that a quart!

Come on now!  Mother’s Day is only a day or two away!  Let’s be kind to our childhood memories!  Daniella sure helped me refresh mine!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Ligurian Cuisine: Lasagna al Pesto

And taking you on a tour of the five plus one villages:

I’m going to go way beyond and with the inestimable help of Daniella’s exquisite recipes allow your taste buds to travel to Cinque Terre.  Being a generous soul, I’ll even allow you to take complaining family and fickle friends along.  Airfare not included.

On our first journey (yes, there will be more than one), you’ll make two sauces and put them together to form the perfect lasagna.  But, it’s not just any lasagna.  This one has no meat and no tomato sauce, so put those cans of tomato paste back on the shelf, behind your expired cans of Chef-Boy-R-Dee spaghetti.  Today, you’ll sample lasagna as you’ve never tasted it.

Pesto Lasagna Ligurian Style, by Daniella

First off, what is Ligurian style?  Well, Liguria is the area of Italy, often known as the Italian Riviera.  It’s capital is Genoa and Cinque Terre is right on the coast, on the part that curves to the right.  (See the map)

Now that you’re enlightened, let’s get on with this fabulous dish!  No more interruptions please, except of course to refill my wine glass.  As was famously said, I often cook with wine and sometimes I add it to the food.

Lasagna al Pesto

Preheat the oven to 350ºF or 180ºC
Butter a 9 X 13 Inch (23 x 33 cm) roasting dish or pan

Lasagna noodles
2 Packed cups fresh basil leaves
2 Cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 Tablespoons pine nuts, plus 2 tablespoon to put on top of the finished dish.
¾ Cup of mixed and grated cheese (parmesan and pecorino) + more cheese for
dusting between layers
Olive oil, (see putting it together below)
2 Cups whole milk
4 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons flour

Here’s a hint:  What we call Parmesan, in Italian is Parmigiano

Here’s another hint:  Pine nuts too expensive?  No basil handy?  Lots
of ways to make pesto.  Try spinach with walnuts.  Delicious!

Use fresh lasagna noodles, or a package of no boil noodles, approx. 1 1/2 lbs.
If using fresh noodles, add sheets one at a time to boiling water
for a minute, then plunge in cold water. Place each sheet on dry towel.

Pesto- (Make double or triple the amount of pesto, if you’re a pesto
lover, as I am!)

Clean the tightly packed fresh basil leaves in cold water, dry well. 
I mean really dry!  Roll them in a tea towel, or dish towel. 

Place the leaves in a food processor or blender and pulse them until they’re finely chopped.
Add the garlic and a large pinch of salt and turn on the processor.  With the
motor running, slowly add ½ Cup extra virgin olive oil, 3 T. pine nuts and blend
until uniform and creamy. Add the grated parmigiano and pecorino cheeses and
pulse again. 

Note: You’re going to spread the pesto over several layers, so if you used
only two packed cups of basil, you’ll want to thin the pesto with about ¼ cup of
water, or do as I suggest and make double or triple the amount to begin with!

Béchamel (bee-sha-mell) Sauce = Besciamella (bee-sha-mella) in Italian

Warm the whole milk on medium heat until almost boiling. In another pot
heat the butter.  When melted, stir the flour into the melted buttr and cook and stir
2 minutes.

Note the milk heating on the back burner.

Drizzle hot milk into butter-flour mixture, a half cup at a time.  Repeat until
you've used up the milk. Continue stirring (I use a whisk) until smooth and thickened. 
Add 1/4 t. salt.

Putting the Lasagna together:

Spread about 2 or 3 Tbs of béchamel on the bottom of the roasting pan, and cover
with one layer of pasta, cutting the pasta if necessary to fit the pan.

Add a thin layer of pesto and sprinkle with parmigiano. Add another layer of pasta
and then a generous layer of béschamel. Continue making 6 layers in the same way,
ending with pesto, béchamel and parmigiano. Sprinkle more pine nuts on top.

Pop it in the oven about 20-40 minutes, until the top is browning.  Let sit 15 minutes
before serving.

Gather friends.  Pour wine.  Serve Lasagna….but not yet.  More recipes to come!
You’ll end up with a full assortment of several absolutely delicious Ligurian courses!

Bought your tickets yet?  Only a matter of time!  And while you’re at it, you might
Want to stay at one of Daniella’s properties in Monterosso.  
Go to The six digits are the villa where we stayed, but
she has others as well.