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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!

 

???????????????????????????????I’ve been having fun making recipes from a new book this week: Michele Scicolone’s latest, The Italian Vegetable Cookbook. (Full disclosure: Michele’s a friend, and she gave me the copy.) It’s a handsome book, with lots of mouth-watering photographs of both familiar and novel dishes.

I had quite a time deciding what to try. Here are my first choices.

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Sausage-Stuffed Zucchini Boats

I’d just bought some early zucchini at my Greenmarket, so I was drawn to this recipe. A small problem was that the recipe calls for carving out halved “medium” zucchini, leaving hulls ½-inch thick. My slender ridged ones – a Costata Romanesco type called Gadzooks – were barely more than an inch thick to begin with. I had to make the walls much thinner and worried that they might collapse in the oven.

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I parboiled the hulls and let them drain while I made the stuffing. There’s almost no limit to the number of good things zucchini boats can be filled with. This recipe’s mixture seemed like a very tasty combination – and so it proved to be.

In olive oil I sautéed chopped onion, a crumbled Italian sweet sausage, the zucchini pulp, and a chopped tomato; added a little broth and cooked until the liquid evaporated. Once the mixture had cooled, I stirred in breadcrumbs, grated parmigiano, parsley and beaten egg. Though I was making a careful half recipe’s worth (just two portions), it seemed like a lot of filling for my slender boats to accommodate. Happily, they accepted it all – heaped high.

A sprinkling of more parmigiano and into the oven they went for about 20 minutes. The boats didn’t collapse, the stuffing stayed where it had been put, the flavors blended very well, and we were happy with the balance between the savory stuffing and the tender little zucchini. They made an excellent first course for dinner.

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Pasta with Spicy Escarole, Tomatoes, and Olives

Another day, another Greenmarket serendipity. I’d bought a big handsome head of escarole, and here was this handy pasta recipe.

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It turned out to be an archetypical peasant dish from the south of Italy: totally simple, totally meatless, totally satisfying. You just warm sliced garlic and a pinch of crushed red pepper in olive oil; add halved cherry tomatoes, chopped black olives, and chopped blanched escarole; sauté everything briefly; then stir in the cooked pasta, some grated pecorino Romano, and a drizzle of fresh olive oil. It sounds like nothing much, but – take my word for this – it’s delicious.

escarole pasta

The escarole absorbed some of every single flavor from the other ingredients and made the whole dish surprisingly rich and tantalizing on the palate, given how humble a concoction it was.

I have to say I took a few small liberties with the recipe. It called for whole wheat fusilli, but I had a lot of ordinary penne rigati in my pantry, so I used that instead. After my garlic had been in the pan for a while, it started to darken too much, so I fished it out instead of leaving it in until the end. (No problem: it had left its mark on the dish, as had the crushed red pepper.) Also, we felt it needed a little salt (the recipe has none at all), and we would have liked a few more cherry tomatoes in the sauce mix, just because they were such tasty little morsels.

As we ate, we felt that countless generations of Italian contadini must have eaten countless bushels of pasta prepared very like this, and we were pleased to be continuing such a fine tradition.

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Polenta Berry Cake

OK, blueberries and raspberries aren’t exactly vegetables, so why, you may ask, is this recipe in the book?  Well, since berries aren’t animal or mineral, I guess they count as vegetable.

The sweet cake batter, made with only 1 cup of flour and ⅓ cup of cornmeal (there: some actual vegetable) is rich with butter and eggs. The eggs go in whole, which is easier than adding just the yolks and then having to beat the whites and fold them in separately. The finished batter was very thick – also very finger-licking good.

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The batter gets spread in a buttered and floured break-away pan, the berries are strewn on top and sprinkled with a little more sugar, and the cake bakes for 45 minutes.

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I served the cake to dinner guests, and it was a big hit. The cornmeal had given the crumb a slightly coarse consistency – pleasantly toothsome and not overly sweet. The berries provided just enough moisture and fruit sweetness in each mouthful, and the crunchy edges made a nice contrast for the palate. I foresee that this is going to become a favorite in our household, to be tried with a variety of different fruits as the season progresses.

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So: Three dishes, three winners. That’s a good introduction to a new cookbook.

Oyster Stew

I never used to care much for oyster stew. I thought the version that NYC’s Grand Central Oyster Bar served was probably best of breed, but I found even it bland and boring – little more than oysters swimming in a bowl of flour-thickened hot milk. But now I’m an enthusiast, thanks to a marvelous recipe for the dish that I’ve discovered in a new book.

???????????????????????????????The Plantation Cookbook was a gift from my friend Gene, a lifelong New Orleanian and very knowledgeable food lover. In addition to recipes and discussion of Louisiana cuisine, the book has profiles of more than two dozen historic plantation houses throughout the state, and stories about the lifestyles of the families who lived there.

I have to say the book gave me pause at first, because it’s attributed to the Junior League of New Orleans, and what little this northern city female knows of southern Junior Leagues doesn’t suggest that those good ladies spend much time laboring over the stove in their own kitchen. But whether the recipes are truly theirs or told to them by their cooks, there’s good stuff in this book. To wit, its oyster stew recipe. It has two features that I haven’t found together in any other recipe: exactly how the oysters are cooked, and the amount and kind of vegetable flavors that go into the liquid base of the stew.

To start, the recipe had me sauté a surprisingly large amount of chopped celery in butter, along with some scallions and parsley. A good aromatic start. The next step was to stir a little flour into the sauteed vegetables; and here I made a slight addition of my own. I let it cook for two minutes, to get rid of the taste of raw flour, before going on.

The oysters and their liquor then went into that sauce base, rather than the more typical approach of poaching them directly in the stew’s milk or cream. I was generous with the quantity of oysters, since Tom and I were having the stew as our main course. Instead of the indicated 6 oysters per portion, I used 20 for the two us (which was the number in one of the half pints of oysters that we buy, frozen, at the excellent fish store in Cape May, NJ, whenever we’re down there on birding trips).

As soon as the oysters were in, I took the whole pan off the heat and let it sit, covered – for 15 minutes, the recipe said, or longer if preparing the dish in advance. That’s all the cooking the oysters got, but the mingling of the flavors during that time must have improved the entire mixture. Here it is, starting its rest period.

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Then at dinner time it was just to reheat the oysters, heat milk (I confess I happened to have half-and-half in the refrigerator, so I used that instead) – neither one ever to a boil – and combine them, seasoning with salt, pepper, and Tabasco.

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The stew was really wonderful. The silky sauce embraced the oysters, and its subtle combination of flavors beautifully set off the tang of the shellfish. We were so impressed with that sauce that I’m going to adapt it for my next attempt at New England clam chowder. For years now I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to reproduce a splendid version of that dish we had once in a small restaurant in Maine. This might just do it. Ladies of the Junior League – and all your hard-working cooks – I thank you.

 

Catracha Cuisine

Here’s the report I promised, last week, on what Tom and I ate on our trip to Honduras. It’s a little disappointing: the meals were abundant and edible, but not thrilling. Most were at the lodge where we stayed, and its restaurant was heavy on choices like Eggs Benedict, French Toast, Fettuccini Alfredo, Caesar Salad, Chicken Cordon Bleu, and Rack of Lamb. Moreover, too often the menu’s reach exceeded the chef’s grasp.

However, we did manage to get some reasonable Latin American dishes. There was this Catracho Breakfast: an omelette with onions, refried beans with cheese and sour cream, sautéed plantains, avocado, and warm tortillas. (Hondurans call themselves “Catrachos.”)

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Huevos Rancheros were attractive, but much too bland for our taste. Otherwise-good Fish Tacos could have used more zip, too. Guess the kitchen was afraid to frighten off the gringos.

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On the other hand, this Tortilla Soup was the best I’ve ever eaten. We both started several dinners with it. I couldn’t figure out what exactly was in it, but I’m going to have to try various recipes soon to see if I can recreate those flavors.

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Another extremely good starter, seemingly very simple, was a corn tamale that tasted mostly of sweet fresh corn. I ate it with such enthusiasm I completely forgot about taking a photo of it!

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The Fish of the Day was always good, once we could get the kitchen to just grill it, not serve it blackened, with garlic, or with basil. This one was a sea bass, we were told.

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I approached the Tequila Shrimp with some suspicion, but it was fine too. The shrimp were very fresh, and the sauce very good over rice, though I couldn’t really discern any tequila flavor in it.

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We had one lunch at a beachfront restaurant, where I had an excellent conch salad. You can’t see the conch very well, but there was a lot of it: tender and flavorful, with a light, creamy dressing. Tom’s lunch was a generous plate of grilled fish with a topping of sauteed onions and tomatoes, a mound of rice and black beans, and a raft of fried plantains. With that meal (and with many others, truth to tell) we drank Salva Vida, Honduras’s beer, an icy-cold bottle of which is truly a Life Saver in this tropical climate.

triple pic

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The major gastronomical disappointment of the trip was the almost complete absence of mangoes. We had many fruit plates with papayas, pineapples, and bananas, all more richly flavorful than anything we get in in this country. All along the highways were huge, gorgeous trees just dripping with ripe mangoes; some of the trails we walked were littered with fallen fruits that the birds and other animals had enjoyed, but our lodge just didn’t serve them.

By special request, we did get a few tastes, but apparently Hondurans appreciate unripe mangoes – green mangoes, they proudly announced. We just don’t understand that particular preference. Ironically, the juiciest mango we had was in the tiny fruit plate served on the airplane on our way home.  Oh, well – the sidewalk fruit stands in our neighborhood all have mangoes now, so we won’t be totally bereft.

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It has suddenly become high strawberry season at my Greenmarket.

Strawberry stands.

The berries I’ve tasted so far have been very good – plump and sweet. I just hope they’ll still be around when I get back from the trip that I’ll be away on during the week that this post is published, because I haven’t yet made my year’s supply of strawberry jam. What I did make, a few days before we left, was the season’s first strawberry tart.

I make a very simple version, using a recipe from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It has only three ingredients: strawberries, sugar, and pastry dough. Well, okay, making the pastry requires other ingredients, but if you have the dough already made up in the freezer, as I often do, it counts as just one. (There’s also an optional fourth item: a beaten egg, to paint a glaze on the pastry before baking, if you feel so inclined.)

For that pastry, I use Italian-style pasta frolla, rolling out the extremely fragile dough between sheets of waxed paper to keep it from breaking apart. Any other kind of sweet pastry dough would also work, of course; even an unsweetened one.

Once the tart pan has been lined with the dough, I fill the shell tightly with fresh strawberries, just hulled, washed, and dried. I like to use small berries so they can stand straight up in the tart. If you’re working with very large ones, you’ll have to quarter them. I sprinkle a few tablespoons of granulated sugar over them – more or less according to how tart or sweet the berries are – and then I roll out the leftover dough and cut strips to make a lattice over the top. With or without an egg glaze, the tart then goes into a moderate oven for about 40 minutes.

tart 1.1

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It has to be cooled before serving, so the berries can absorb back some of their juices that the sugar has drawn out. But that’s one of the virtues of this recipe: you can make it well in advance. The kinds of strawberry tarts that use a pre-baked pastry shell filled with a layer of pastry cream, sweetened ricotta cheese, or fruit preserves under uncooked berries can’t be assembled until very shortly before being served, or they’ll get soggy. Mine gets even better if made early in the day, allowing the flavors and textures of crust and fruit to blend deliciously at dessert time. It’s best to make a tart just big enough to be consumed at one sitting, however, because even this one will get soggy if it sits around for a day or two.

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BTW, this week I’m in Honduras. Tom and I are on a birding trip with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. We’ll be staying for a week at The Lodge at Pico Bonito, a luxurious small eco-resort surrounded by lush tropical rainforest and boasting a myriad of gorgeous birds on its 400-acre property.

The Lodge at Pico Bonito

The lodge’s restaurant seems to be quite notable, so when I return I may do a post about the Mesoamerican specialties I hope to be enjoying there. Wish me many mangoes!

Just yesterday I put up a post here about having tried (without success) to reproduce the lovely nettle sformato I’d recently eaten at Union Square Café. Since I’m slightly acquainted with proprietor Danny Meyer, I emailed him a link to the post, thinking it might amuse him. What a response I’ve gotten! Warm, friendly messages from Danny and from two members of his staff, along with a copy of the restaurant’s nettle sformato recipe, which they’d also just posted on the USC website.

Reading chef Carmen Quagliata’s recipe was a humbling experience. It is a much more subtle and complex dish than I had innocently imagined:

  • It has all these ingredients that mine didn’t: crusty country bread, olive oil, garlic, butter, shallots, water, and milk.
  • It uses a much smaller quantity of nettles than I (foolishly, I now see) did.
  • It calls for different cheese: grated pecorino and parmigiano – though probably because the La Tur that the restaurant used isn’t something most people can expect to find.
  • And the basic medium of the dish is not just an egg-cream custard but that country bread, soaked in what’s almost a stew of sauteed garlic, shallots, the nettles, milk, and cream, then pureed with a whole egg and an extra yolk.
  • Probably because of all those additional ingredients and steps, even the baking of the dish is a longer and more complex process than the way I did mine.

I am awed and edified ­– not only by the recipe but by the extraordinary kindness and generosity of the Union Square Café people who took the time to do this for me (and now also for you, my readers). It’s just one more reason why USC is one of the best restaurants in America.

Now, do I go out and buy another bunch of nettles and try to get it right this time?

Nettle Flan

At a dinner at Union Square Café last week I had an unusual appetizer: a nettle sformato. Billed as made with La Tur cheese, garnished with tiny morel mushrooms, and topped with a sunnyside-up quail egg, the deep green custard was utterly delicious. I’d hardly ever eaten nettles before and never cooked them, but I knew at once that this was a dish I had to try making.

I knew where to get the nettles, too. The restaurant is just a block from the Union Square Greenmarket and buys much of its seasonal produce there. I’d already seen nettles on the Paffenroth stand at the market this year, but all I knew about nettles had deterred me from considering them. (E.g., there’s red print on the sign that says ** Be careful when handling – can cause ITCHING **)

market nettles

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Before buying any, I had to find out how to treat them, other than not touching them without gloves! Fortunately, Elizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini has a section on nettles, with handling directions and recipes. I also looked at various savory flan recipes in my cookbooks, to get an idea of the proportions and ingredients I’d need for two servings. Then I went to the market and gingerly carried home a bunch of nettles.

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Wearing plastic gloves, I cut the leaves off the stalks, sloshed the leaves in cold water to clean them, dropped them into boiling water for a minute, drained and plunged them in ice water, drained again and squeezed out the water. The stinging substance was deactivated by that point, so I could remove the gloves.

I had 1½ cups of packed nettle leaves, which Schneider said would “resemble coarse puree.” Mine didn’t. Those greens were considerably tougher than squeezed spinach. I thought if I spun them in my mini food processor they might turn into puree, so I tried that. Nope: They came out looking like wet grass clippings.

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Hm. Well, I continued with the recipe, hoping for the best.

I’d been able to get a round of La Tur, which is a creamy Italian cheese made from a combination of cow, sheep, and goat milk. I heated half a cup of heavy cream in a small pot and added two ounces of the cheese, stirring until it all melted together. I mixed that into the nettle greens, added a beaten egg and some salt, and processed that in a blender until it all finally consented to become something like a puree. Still very fibrous, though; I don’t know what I could have done about that.

I had intended to make only two flans, but there were two cups’ worth of puree, so I buttered four half-cup molds, set them in a bain marie, and baked them at 350° for 25 minutes. I didn’t have quail eggs available to top them with, but I did have a garnish of a few extra morels that I’d sauteed as part of our main course* that evening.

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Alas, my flans were disappointing: fairly bland and very coarsely textured – nothing like the suavity of the Union Square Café version. I will say the morels perked up the nettles’ flavor quite a bit. But in retrospect I see I should have used much more cream and egg to smooth and soften the custard. Or, more practically, have used only half as many nettles for my quantity of cream and egg, and made only two flans. Because I now have to think of some way to salvage the remaining two portions!

* By the way, that main course was a strong consolation for the inferior flans. Sweetbreads and morels à la maréchale, served in puff pastry cases. Recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering. Lush! And another consolation: Both dishes loved the ’82 Prunotto Barbaresco Rabaja we had chosen for this dinner to celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary. We did too.

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