Food flick is seasoned with reality

September 11, 2002|By Beverly Levitt | Beverly Levitt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Mostly Martha, the new German film, which opens Friday at the Charles Theatre, centers on a Hamburg chef (portrayed by Martina Gedeck) who produces exquisite French dishes while enduring an emotional life as pale as her kitchen whites. People leave her cold, and she takes little pleasure in food.

When a charming Italian sous-chef named Mario (Sergio Castellitto) tries to wine and dine her, this young woman's fancy doesn't turn to love; she's sure he's come to steal her job.

"I've always been fascinated by chefs," says writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck. "They're such strange, obsessed people. Some of them never eat, and most of them don't have a life."

The second daughter of two food-obsessed parents, the German-born Nettelbeck seemed destined to write a film about food. She left her apartment in Berlin to stay with her parents, Uwe and Petra, in Merigot, France, while she wrote the script. (Her parents moved there from Germany because they were tired of traveling across the French border to eat the food they love.) "I had a million food questions; they had all the answers," she said. To make the film look authentic, Sandra found a Hamburg chef to coach the actors so they knew their way around a restaurant. Every detail is right, beginning with the way Martha straps on her apron when she enters the kitchen, to how she holds her knife or seasons a sauce. Even the culinary shoptalk among the cooks is authentic. "He was my guardian angel," Nettelbeck says. "When we went into rehearsal he trained all the actors in kitchen skills. You can't learn how to cook in a week, but you can learn how to move. When we went into rehearsal he figured out what they were preparing in each scene; he even acted as the food stylist. He'd never done a movie before, but he knew kitchens." Food dominates the movie. At one point, Martha loosens up after unsuccessfully trying to cheer up her 8-year old niece, Lina, with a dish of monkfish a l'Armoricaine. Lina begs Mario instead to cook them an Italian dinner, which he serves (to Martha's horror) on the floor, directly from the pots.

Martha eats with relish for the first time in the film, and it is then that she realizes that perhaps love and food do go together - which was Nettelbeck's premise all along.

Distributed by the Chicago Tribune

Monkfish a l'Armoricaine

Director Sandra Nettelbeck used her father Uwe's recipe for monkfish in the movie "Mostly Martha." If monkfish is unavailable, use another dense-fleshed fish such as halibut. Armagnac is a brandy made in Armagnac, France.

Preparation time: 20 minutes; cooking time: 35 minutes

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon butter

3 large cloves garlic, peeled, sliced

2 large shallots, peeled, sliced

8 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, halved

2 cups fish or chicken broth

1 cup dry white wine

2 tablespoons Armagnac or other brandy

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 pounds boneless and skinless monkfish or halibut fillets, cut into 2-inch chunks

1/2 cup whipping cream

2 tablespoons each, freshly chopped: parsley, chervil, tarragon

Heat butter in large, nonreactive skillet over medium-high heat; add garlic and shallots. Cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Turn heat to low and add tomatoes; cook 5 minutes. Add fish broth, wine, brandy and salt. Turn heat to medium; cook until mixture reduces by half, about 10 minutes.

Turn heat to low; add monkfish to liquid. Cook gently until fish is cooked through, about 7 minutes. Be careful not to overcook. Remove fish to platter. Lower heat under skillet; add cream and 1 tablespoon of the parsley. Add chervil and tarragon. Cook until thickened, about 10 minutes. Return fish to skillet; heat through. Place fish and sauce on plates; garnish with the remaining tablespoon of parsley.

Per serving: 325 calories (48 percent of calories from fat); 18 grams fat, 9 grams saturated fat; 95 milligrams cholestero; 10 grams carbohydrate; 31 grams protein; 570 milligrams sodium; 1.4 grams fiber

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