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literary food blog, for readers with good taste.

Maria Semple's "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" & Wild Mushroom Risotto

What does it mean to go missing? That is the question at the heart of Maria Semple's entertaining 2012 novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette. Over the course of some 350 pages, a series of paper and electronic means of correspondence chronicle the events that lead to and result from Bernadette Fox's sudden and unexpected disappearance from her home in Seattle. Though clunky at times, this method allows Semple to create caricatures of the absurd Pacific Northwesterners who comprise this narrative.

Bernadette Fox is the confused mother of Bee (Balakrishna) Branch, a genius only child whose dream it is to take an Antarctic cruise with her parents before heading off to the East Coast for prep school. Her husband, Elgin Branch is a genius himself, having invented a mind-reading robot while at Microsoft. The supporting cast includes such insufferable individuals as a virtual personal assistant from India, a pesky neighbor whose main gripe with Bernadette is her refusal to hold hands and sing Kumbaya with the other school moms, and the neighbor's sidekick, who switches allegiances when she falls in love with Elgin after Bernadette's disappearance. In the character development, Semple's pedigree as a writer for Arrested Development becomes clear; in her novel, the people lack self-awareness to the same degree as those in the show. And to great effect.

Bernadette herself is an enigma. Having abandoned a soaring architecture career when she hit some turbulence, she now seems to regret following her husband to a new job at Microsoft. Through her, Semple subtly questions the burdens of genius, the transformation of motherhood and even the ability of affluent women to fall back on their husbands' financial support when they lose inspiration. Due to the lighthearted tone, it is at times difficult to see that Semple — intentionally or not — has introduced such issues into the text. Regardless, they are there, all contributing to the circumstances of Bernadette's Houdini act.

The chapters leading up to that event overflow with a charm that is less apparent once Bernadette goes missing and her family begins their search. Though the latter portion is sadder — particularly when Bee is sent to boarding school early and flounders there — the characters become more real then, proving their personalities are more than just entertainment for the reader. Happily, the end of the book provides a happy, tied-up conclusion that will not leave you hanging.

You've heard the cliche about icebergs, certainly? What you see above the water is only 10 percent of its whole volume. So it is with Where'd You Go Bernadette and the eponymous character herself. 

Wild Mushroom Risotto

Much of my time reading Where'd You Go, Bernadette was spent wondering when she would, in fact, go. And it wasn't until I finished the book that I realized she was missing all along. You're likely to perform a similar act of folly while eating this sumptuous mushroom risotto. You could spend your meal hunting for the hearty chunks of shiitake, porcini and oyster mushrooms, or you could recognize that their essence is infused throughout the dish.

Wild Mushroom Risotto 2

WILD MUSHROOM RISOTTO

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1 oz. dried mixed mushrooms (I used porcini, shiitake, black and oyster)
  • 1 1/2 cups warm water
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • splash of apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 1/4 tsp. sea or kosher salt, or to taste
  • ground black pepper, to taste

Instructions

Soak the mushrooms in a bowl of warm water, 15 to 20 minutes or until soft. Strain the mushrooms into a fine sieve over a bowl and set liquid aside. Squeeze mushrooms dry with paper towel and chop.

In a saucepan over medium heat, warm the broth until bubbles appear around the edge and hold at that temperature.

In a small Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 1 tbsp. of extra virgin olive oil over medium-high heat and sauté shallot until translucent, about two minutes.

Drop heat to medium. Add remaining 1 tbsp. oil and Arborio rice. Stir until rice is coated and sauté 1 minute.

Add 1/2 cup of the hot broth and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is just moist, about 3 minutes. Continue adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time, always waiting until the rice is just moist before adding more. After 2 cups have been used, add 1/2 a cup of mushroom soaking liquid, a splash of apple cider vinegar and the chopped mushrooms. When the liquid is almost fully absorbed, resume adding the broth.

The risotto is ready when it is creamy and slightly soupy and the kernels are tender but still slightly firm at the center, about 35 minutes after the first addition of broth. Remove from the heat.

Stir in Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma


S: I love this review of Where'd You Go, Bernadette over at Books are the New Black.

Bookmarked: Anthropomorphic Dishware

The TBR List: November 8