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Toward the end of every summer, Tom and I buy a 25-pound box of San Marzano plum tomatoes at our Greenmarket and spend most of a day processing them to store for use through the winter. We’re lucky enough to have a local grower of these, the most prized sauce tomatoes in Italy: Cherry Lane Farms from southern New Jersey.

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This year, we made about half of the box’s tomatoes into a simple sauce that can either be used as is or elaborated in just about any way we like.

First we washed and halved them, then cooked them with a little bit of water, just long enough to soften.

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We put them through the coarse blade of a food mill and cooked that puree into a sauce. The sauce pot had been heated with olive oil seasoned with garlic cloves and peperoncini before the tomatoes went in.

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It took quite a while to thicken. We ended up with about a gallon of a light, fresh-tasting sauce. We filled seven pint jars with the finished sauce and processed them in our steam canner for 35 minutes. (The extra sauce we just stuck in the refrigerator for current use.)

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Then we turned to the other half of the tomatoes.

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These we simply peeled. I crammed as many as I could, whole, into six quart jars. The rest we slurried in the food processor, adding some of that puree to the jars, along with enough hot water to fill.

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Once closed, those jars were processed in the steam canner for 45 minutes. Then both batches of jars had to sit undisturbed on the kitchen counter for 24 hours.

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At the end of that time we tested the lids. All had sealed properly, so off to the pantry they went, joining the bread-and-butter pickles, corn relish, strawberry jam, and peach jam that we’d put up earlier this year. It gives me a warm feeling of satisfaction just to look at them all, and to anticipate how welcome they will be in the depths of the winter to come!

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Hazelnut Financiers

Hazelnuts are a great favorite in my household. Whenever Tom’s Italian wine trips take him to Alba, he brings back shrink-wrapped bags of the prized local variety, already peeled and roasted.

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I can happily eat them just in the hand, but mostly I use them in dessert recipes. One that I like very much is a recipe that I clipped from the New York Times two summers ago, for Fig-Hazelnut Financiers. Regular readers of this blog know I’ve taken strong exception to some NYT recipes (here and here) but I can honestly praise this one.

The classic financier is an almond-flavored French cake, baked in small rectangular molds to look like bars of gold. Common variants come in different shapes and are often topped with fruit. For me, the switch from almonds to hazelnuts – also not uncommon – is the master stroke that transforms a good recipe into a great one.

The recipe’s first step is to melt a stick of butter and cook it into beurre noisette. (I do have one nit to pick with the Times. It says cook the butter “until it turns nut brown.” That’s misleading: It’s not the liquid butter that should do that; it’s the solids that fall to the bottom of the pan, which you leave behind. The butter itself should get only to a dark golden color.)

While the butter was cooling a little, I stirred together ground hazelnuts, all-purpose flour, and confectioners’ sugar – a lot of sugar! – and then beat in four egg whites. Some recipes say to whip the whites into peaks first, but it isn’t necessary here. Finally, I beat in the melted butter and vanilla extract.

I divided the batter over the cups of a buttered muffin pan, put a slice of ripe fig on top of each cup, and baked them for 15 minutes. After a short rest, they obligingly came out of the pan intact, looking like small flat-top muffins.

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These are truly luscious little morsels. The fig/hazelnut combination tastes just wonderful – sweet but not cloying, rich without being heavy. In short, a fine dessert. They even freeze well – useful to prevent us from gobbling down the whole batch on the day they’re made!

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A few days later, thinking about a dessert for a small dinner party, I had the idea of making a single large financier cake. I put together another batch of batter, poured it into an eight-inch springform pan, and added a circular pattern of fresh peach slices. With all that moist fruit, the cake took much longer to bake: 30 minutes at 400° and then 5-10 minutes more at 350. But it came out just fine.

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It was an excellent simple dessert, different from the fig tarts in being slightly less intense, with the hazelnut crumb coming more to the fore, but delightful all the same. And I still have more of those good hazelnuts for future financier pleasures, as the fruits of the season change. I bet they’ll be good with pears.

 

Local heirloom tomatoes are exceptionally good this season. My favorites are the Cherokees: big, meaty, oxblood-colored fruits. We always have some in the house these days.

Among the many ways I’ve been eating them is cooked with potatoes. I came late to an appreciation of this combination. In my childhood, a frequent family dinner was pan-fried beef liver served with mashed potatoes and stewed tomatoes (canned, of course). This was far from one of my favorite meals, and I particularly disliked eating the potatoes sloshed with watery tomato juices. It took my grown-up discovery of Italian cooking for me to realize what a marriage made in heaven these two things can be.

Here are some of the potato and tomato dishes I’ve been making this summer.

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Patate Arriganate

???????????????????????????????This recipe for potatoes baked with tomatoes and onions is in Naples at Table, by Arthur Schwartz. It’s the soul of simplicity. Toss thinly sliced potatoes, thinly sliced onion, coarsely chopped canned tomatoes (Italian-style, senz’altro), salt, and oregano in a shallow oiled baking dish. Mix everything together. Put into a 400° oven for 45 minutes, stirring or not, according to whether you want the bottom layer to get crusty or stay soft.

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This is one of those great peasant dishes that taste much better than you’d think they possibly could, given how little there is to them. I made it with chunked Cherokee tomatoes rather than canned, and used a bit more than the recipe called for. It was terrific.

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Pasticcio di Patate

Almost 15 years ago, in Rome, Tom and I had a dinner at Checco Il Carettiere. This cheerful, bustling Trastevere restaurant was largely a tourist place, but the food was fine. The house’s display table contained – among its profusion of antipasto and contorno selections – one huge, dense, red-orange mound. That mound intrigued us. Asked about it, the waiter said it was a pasticcio di patate, made with potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. Well, we thought, what could hurt? We ordered some. It was delicious. I told myself I was going to try re-creating it at home, but the years went by and I never did.

???????????????????????????????Imagine my pleasure, then, when, looking through my new copy of Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook, I found a recipe called Tomato Mashed Potatoes, with a headnote saying it was inspired by a dish Michele had had at a trattoria in Rome. It was exactly my Checco’s potato “pie”! I made it right away.

It’s a little more work than the previous recipe, but still easy. Boil potatoes in their jackets. Meanwhile, soften chopped onions and a pinch of red pepper flakes in olive oil, add tomato puree, and cook until it gets quite thick. Mash or rice the cooked potatoes into the tomato sauce, stir, and add salt and pepper to taste. Either transfer it to a serving dish as is; or oil a bowl, pack the mixture into it, and unmold it onto a plate. If you’ve gotten the paste thick enough, as they did at Checco, it will mound up handsomely and can be served in slices.

My version unmolded, but it was a little too soft for slicing, so it had to be spooned out. But it was none the worse for that. Next time I may play with the proportions or reduce the sauce a bit more. The dish is good hot, warm, or at room temperature. (Actually, all three of these dishes get even tastier as they cool – as long as you don’t have a prejudice against cool vegetables. Italians firmly believe that Americans eat everything too hot.)

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Baked Sliced Potatoes and Tomatoes

LTIThis Calabrese preparation is one of Tom’s and my own recipes, from our first book, La Tavola Italiana. Again, it’s extremely easy to put together, and it tastes better than you might think it could for so minimal a preparation.

You oil a large baking dish. Fill it with a single layer of thickly sliced potatoes. Salt them lightly. Top them with a layer of very ripe tomato slices, also salting lightly. Strew garlic slivers over all, sprinkle on a little grated pecorino cheese, drizzle with olive oil, and bake at 350° until the potatoes are tender, about 45 minutes. The picture below is a half recipe, made to serve two.

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The dish does have to be checked a few times in the oven, in case the tomatoes aren’t juicy enough to keep the potatoes from drying out. If so, a little hot water does the trick. Oh, and it also has to be cooled 10 minutes before serving, or else the boiling hot tomato juices will sear your lips. It’s well worth the wait!

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All three of these potato-tomato combinations go especially well with steak, pork chops, or sausages, and, just by themselves, I think they’d even make satisfying vegetarian meals, along with good crusty bread and green salad. Both potatoes and tomatoes are products of the Americas, but they needed a trip to Italy for their partnership to blossom.

Penelope Casas’s La Cocina de Mamá, whose recipe for fried eggs I wrote up gleefully two weeks ago, has a recipe for a rabbit stew that looked really appetizing in its photo and sounded equally appealing in its ingredient list. And I like to cook rabbit as an occasional alternative to chicken, so this seemed to be a natural.

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Once again I had discounted the artistry of the food stylist! The dish I made wound up looking nothing like the one pictured. You’d think by now I would simply accept that as a fact of culinary life – but its appearance was not the only problem with the recipe, as I would discover. This was a big disappointment to me, since Penelope Casas is a cook I respect, whose other books I’ve found very reliable.

The preparation seemed pretty straightforward. The only unusual ingredient was in the recipe was ñoras. These dried sweet red peppers from Spain aren’t common in grocery stores hereabouts, but a very good Spanish market, Despaña, is just over a mile away from my home, so I took a little walk and found a package of them there. They’re interesting looking peppers.

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The first step was to make a seasoning paste with the peppers. I cored, seeded and softened two of them in olive oil in a big casserole; removed and spun them in my mini-processor with chopped garlic, peppercorns, and a little chicken broth; and set the paste aside.

Next was to chop the rabbit into two-inch pieces. To spare the sensibilities of anyone distressed by how much a skinned, headless rabbit looks like a skinned, headless cat, I’ll show you only the cut-up pieces.

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I thought I’d be using a cleaver for the chopping, as butchers do, but my poultry shear turned out to be the best tool for that job. You see the stylized bird-head design it has between the handles and the cutting blades? Its “beak” is an immensely strong bone-cutting mechanism. Still, it was a lengthy undertaking. (BTW, this was one job I couldn’t delegate to my usual bespoke knifeman: Tom disclaims all understanding of the anatomy of poultry, and he puts rabbit in the same class as feathered creatures.)

Back at the big casserole, I sautéed chopped onion and green pepper in the ñoras’ oil, added chopped tomato, and was ready to start cooking the rabbit pieces, when I was brought up short by a real poser. When was I supposed to add the seasoning paste? I read the recipe through three times. Tom read the recipe through twice. It never said another word about that paste. Somebody – author or editor or both – really dropped the ball here, and it conceivably made a difference in the way my dish turned out.

I decided that the point of adding the rabbit was the right time to stir the paste into the pan, to give the meat the benefit of the flavorings, so I did. Then I added the rabbit pieces, which were supposed to cook only enough to turn white, not brown. But with that dark paste reinforcing the now-tomato-colored vegetable base, white was not a color the rabbit could turn. (Compare mine, below, to the book photo’s palely perfect rabbit pieces.)  It seemed that this wasn’t the right time to add the paste after all – unless, of course, the book photo bore no relation to reality. How is a hapless home cook to know?

rabbit in pan

When the rabbit had colored, I added a cup and a half of broth and the green beans – flat beans, as Casas recommends (I go along with her there; these clumsy-looking beans are much more flavorful than ordinary green beans) – covered the pan, and simmered it all for 20 minutes.

I did this much in advance, and as dinner approached had only to add raw pasta to the pan, to cook right in the sauce. The recipe OKs either commercial lasagna noodles or homemade ones, and since its photo shows the ruffly edges of commercial ones, that’s what I used. But that’s where I hit another problem: The recipe called for eight pieces of lasagna. That’s half a pound of dry pasta, and it would have sucked up far more liquid than there was in my pan. Casas says you can add “a little more broth, if necessary,” but I’d have needed so much more that I thought it would unbalance the flavors.

Since two of us could never eat all the rabbit at one meal anyway, I used four pieces of pasta, thinking to add more when the dish made its second appearance. Once cooked, after another 20 minutes, that was already proportionately more pasta than the book’s picture indicated. (The book’s bright red bits of tomato and still-brilliantly green beans were also suspicious: Vegetables don’t look like that after such long cooking.)

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Well, the finished dish wasn’t a disaster. Far from it, in fact: tasty, with quintessentially Spanish flavors. You’d never mistake it for a French or Italian dish. I credit that paste, and especially the ñoras, for that. But it was very mild, and the lean rabbit meat verged on dryness, so that I couldn’t help thinking that a plump, fatty chicken, or even pork, would have been juicier and tastier. And it wasn’t so much fun to eat: There’s no neat way to handle all those tiny bone bits.

This seems to be one of those mildly flavored down-home dishes that if you grew up on, you love, and if you didn’t, you just don’t see the charm.

I’m still working to overcome my deep-rooted aversion to okra. (It’s the slime, you know.) I’ve made some headway recently: I’m okay with okra in gumbo, and I positively like it in a simple summer dish of okra, corn, and tomatoes.

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Several years ago a business acquaintance with whom I’d been discussing okra emailed me this recipe of his own. I was very pleasantly surprised when I first tried it, and I’ve been making it ever since. I’d be glad to credit it to him if only I could remember his name!

You start by slicing 2 cups of okra and soaking it in acidulated water for 30 minutes. That’s tricky, because I’ve learned that water on cut okra is what activates the slime, but in this case I ignore my instincts and just do it.

Next, in a large pan you sauté a chopped onion in bacon fat until translucent. When the okra has had its 30 minutes you dump it into a colander, run some fresh water over it (to rinse off the initial slime, I guess), add it to the pan, and cook for five minutes. More slime starts coming out as it cooks. I try not to look too closely at it.

Then you stir in 2 cups of raw corn kernels, 2 cups of chopped tomato, salt, and pepper; and cook for 10 minutes uncovered and 5 minutes covered. Miraculously, the slime disappears. Is it absorbed by the other veg?  Broken down by the acid in the tomato? I don’t know, but I’m deeply grateful.

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The vegetable flavors all blend in an interestingly subtle way in the finished dish, which eats very well. This quantity is said to serve two to three; two of us rarely leave much! On this hot July evening, all we needed alongside it was a few grilled luganega sausages and a little French bread.

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Well, there was one other dish. For an appetizer Tom made a macaroni salad. This isn’t a fancy modern pasta salad – it’s the old delicatessen standby of elbow macs seasoned with minced celery, green pepper, and onion, dressed with mayonnaise. Simple as it was, Tom’s homemade mayonnaise raised it above the ordinary.

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P.S. For more about my struggles with okra, see this post.

 

 

Have you ever fried an egg? I mean, really fried – not just cooked in a skillet filmed with butter or bacon fat. Fried meaning bathed in a pool of very hot olive oil until the white is opaque, its edges are crisp, brown and lacy, and the yolk is still runny.

???????????????????????????????I just learned this Spanish way of frying eggs from La Cocina de Mamá: The Great Home Cooking of Spain. Author Penelope Casas says she has asked everyone she knows in Spain – friends, family, restaurant chefs: “When you were a kid and very hungry, what did you ask your mother or grandmother to prepare?” And the answer was always “Fried eggs.”

Now that I’ve discovered them, I can well see why. The dish is truly something special – much tastier than eggs “fried” in the standard American way. But the process requires a bit of practice. It took me three tries on separate days this past week to get it right.

The first day, I let the oil get too hot. Casas says to heat it “to the smoking point” and I’m sure mine didn’t get that far. She also says not to crack the egg directly into the pan (makes sense!) but transfer it to a cup first, which I did. But when I gingerly slid in the egg, both it and the oil violently bubbled and splashed and spat like a firecracker.

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The egg spread out very far in the pan, and though I tried to fold the white back over the yolk, as directed, that didn’t work too well: The exposed yolk solidified before the edges of the white had crisped very much. Tom gallantly ate the experimental egg anyway, on a piece of toast. It had developed excellent flavor from the olive oil, he said, and the crisp part of the white was really pleasing, though the absence of a runny yolk was disappointing.

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The second day, in an excess of caution, I didn’t get the oil hot enough. It worked better in part: The egg bubbled and splashed only a little when it went into the pan, and the white stayed in place, cushioning the yolk to keep it from hardening.

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But the egg was done before it developed any brown, lacy, crisp edges. It came out looking mostly like a poached egg. This time Tom ate it on a bed of hash brown potatoes that he’d made for himself. It had good basic flavor and a good runny yolk, anyway.

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Drat it, I was determined to get this right! So on the third day I fried one more egg. (BTW, all these experiments were done in the same ¼” of oil, deliberately left in the pan. The eggs didn’t seem to absorb any of it.) This time it worked. The oil and the egg both behaved well in the pan, the edges of the whites crisped and browned, the yolk stayed liquid.

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I confess, I ate this one myself.

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I’m very pleased to have discovered this technique. Eggs are a great thing in general, and I can see that frying them this way makes them versatile adornments for many different kinds of foods and occasions, from breakfast right through to a midnight snack.

 

In all my years of bread baking I’ve never had much luck with rye. The grain has less gluten than wheat, which makes rye flour very dense, without the elasticity that makes breads rise well. Most rye bread recipes call for a lot of yeast, a mixture of white and rye flours, and very long rising. Even so, the rye loaves I’ve made have been either leaden in texture or so mildly rye flavored that they hardly deserve the name. But I keep hoping, because I do like rye bread.

Baking with JuliaFor my latest attempt, I tried a recipe from Baking with Julia called Eastern European Rye. It has the three characteristics mentioned above: a whopping 2¼ teaspoons of yeast for only 3 cups of flour; equal parts rye and regular bread flour; two risings in the bowl and one as a loaf. But it also has some new-to-me features.

First, ¾ tablespoon of finely ground caraway seeds were to be mixed right into the dough. This was a challenge. I had only whole seeds, which were stubbornly reluctant to grind. A mortar and pestle did nothing at all to them. The mini-food processor only broke them up a bit. Finally I dug out my ancient blender and spun the seeds around in its mini-cup for a long time at the “liquefy” speed. I wouldn’t call the result “finely ground,” but it was what I could achieve, so I went with it. Here are the three strugglers.

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OK, on with the show. Once mixed, the dough had to be kneaded twice as long as usual in the Kitchen-Aid with the dough hook. Then it had to be transferred to a big bowl that was painted with melted butter – not something I’d ever heard of. Even the plastic wrap to cover the bowl had to be painted with butter. Given the modest size of my ball of dough, I thought that was unnecessary caution, but the dough rose surprisingly high, both times. This was the liveliest rye dough I’ve ever worked with, and I began to have hopes.

Shaping the loaf was promising too. The dough was supple but not sticky and very easy to work with. The shaping instructions were quite elaborate – designed to produce a big cylindrical loaf with well-rounded ends.

Then came the really weird part: the final rise, which was done this way:

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That is my loaf, swathed in a linen cloth and hanging from the spit of my countertop rotisserie. The recipe actually urged me to “Punch a hole in the ends of the towel, slip an S-hook through the hole, and suspend the sling from a cupboard or doorknob.” Not in my kitchen, I won’t! (Parenthetically, it allowed for tying the ends together instead.)

???????????????????????????????In this ridiculous hammock, the loaf was to rise for only 30 minutes. I doubted it would do much in that little time, but when I unwrapped the sling it had grown into a good-sized blimp. Another good sign, and yet more hope. I tilted the loaf onto a pizza peel, gave it three deep horizontal slashes, painted it with an eggwhite glaze, and slid it onto a baking stone in a 425° oven.

That was when nemesis struck. The bread hardly rose at all in the baking – even with ice cubes thrown into the oven to provide steam and keep the surface soft enough to swell. The slashes had grudgingly opened a bit, but no interior dough came up to fill those deep ravines.

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My loaf came out of the oven virtually the same size as it had gone in. And there was that cloven hoof at one end, where the dough had broken open in a place that it shouldn’t have. (BTW, those blotchy white areas are where I’d missed applying the glaze. The difference wasn’t so visible when the bread was raw.) The loaf felt heavy enough to use as a club. The crust was extremely hard. Did I do something wrong? If so I can’t think what. I was deeply disappointed.

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But, oddly enough, when the bread was sliced . . .

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. . . it tasted very good. Pretty it wasn’t: The longish, flat slices were rugged and chewy. But they had robust rye flavor and a little tang of the caraway, which sang on the palate. We could eat this sturdy, homely bread. And Tom reports that it makes good, if minute, sandwiches.

So while it wasn’t the ideal rye bread of my dreams, it’s one of the better ones I’ve made. I’ll probably try the recipe again one day. Maybe if I shape the loaf into a shorter and fatter cylinder, I’ll get a better rise. Maybe if I make the slashes shallower and widen them a bit before putting the loaf in the oven, they’ll get the idea to open in the heat. Maybe more ice cubes for more steam. Hope springs eternal!

 

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