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I love the names of dishes from India. Unlike the prosaic English versions of the two in my title – Lamb in Fragrant Garlic Cream Sauce and Baked Eggplant Stuffed with Cheese and Herbs – the exotic Hindi names are so mysterious and appealing! (At least I think that’s Hindi, though it might be Kashmiri or Punjabi or another of the 22 official languages of India.) And I love the flavors of India, whatever their names. Rogan Josh is a particular favorite. Whenever Tom and I go to an Indian restaurant, one of us is bound to order it. But I’d never made it at home, so that was one of the dishes I chose for my latest foray into Indian cooking. For the second I picked an eggplant recipe, to partner with the lamb.

 

Baked Eggplant Stuffed with Cheese and Herbs

Sahni vegetarianThis recipe is from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking. She calls it an elegant and beautifully seasoned preparation, but mine didn’t turn out exactly so on either count – though it looked very good on the page and smelled lovely all through its cooking.

I cut a rotund one-pound eggplant in half and carefully scooped out the flesh, leaving thick enough walls (as I thought) to hold the stuffing. The stuffing was a sauté of chopped onion, ginger, the eggplant pulp, tomatoes, green Bell pepper, cayenne pepper, ground coriander, lemon juice, salt, and pot cheese – the last an acceptable substitute for the Indian cheese called chenna. I filled the eggplant shells with the mixture, set them in a baking dish, and drizzled on olive oil.

They were to be covered with foil and baked for 30 minutes; then uncovered and baked 15 minutes more. I wanted a pan deep enough to keep the cover from touching the filling, and my best pan for that was fairly large. And because of the curvature of the shells, the two stuffed halves didn’t sit perfectly level. So when they came out of the oven, the shells had slid around in their oozing juices, partially collapsed, and spilled some of their filling.  I thought I’d left enough flesh on the skins to make the shell holds up, but I guess I hadn’t.

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In that picture the eggplants are not in the pan they were cooked in. Because of their unfortunate deconstruction, I transferred them to a shallow dish for serving, refilling and reshaping the shells as best I could. And I topped them with chopped cilantro, as recommended.

So how did they taste? Well, all right, but not a big winner. The eggplant pulp hadn’t taken on much of the other flavors, and to me it was still somewhat bitter. Dabs of papaya-orange chutney and mango-chili pickle helped it a lot. Tom liked it more than I did: He thought the bitterness minor and relished the mélange of other flavors.  I noticed, however, that he availed himself of the Indian pickle and chutney pretty freely.

With all the other good things there are to do with eggplant, I’m not likely to make this particular dish again, though I might try a different Indian eggplant recipe before local eggplant season ends.

 

Lamb in Fragrant Garlic Cream Sauce

Sahni classicThe recipe I used for Rogan Josh is from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. This is my favorite Indian cookbook, and I often do lamb dishes from it, but almost always using its recipe for Ghosht Kari, which is a spicy tomato-based stew. Rogan Josh is something else entirely.

First, boned lamb leg meat is cubed and marinated for a few hours in an aromatic puree made from onions, ginger, coriander, cayenne, yogurt, sour cream, and ghee (or melted butter). Then it’s cooked slowly, still in its marinade, until the lamb is perfectly tender –­ about two hours. The cooking aromas were enticing.

After that, in a small pan, you quickly fry chopped garlic, ground cumin, ground cardamom, and garam masala in more ghee, producing more appetizing smells, and stir the mixture into the lamb’s pot, along with a healthy dose of heavy cream. Then the whole concoction has to sit at room temperature for at least two hours.

I did all this a day in advance, because Sahni says it improves with keeping. The next evening I simply heated it up and served it.

 

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Even though it looked unfortunately a bit like dogfood, the Rogan Josh was really delicious, rich and mellow, without the palate-searing chili heat of many Indian dishes. Those cooking aromas hadn’t lied. Like the eggplant, it had no objection to judicious applications of cilantro, chutney, and pickle. The lamb was beautifully tender and well-seasoned, and the sauce was excellent over plain white rice – and also fine to mop up with warm parathas.

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Unlike the eggplant, the lamb is a dish I will definitely make again.

Baking Pizza on a Steel

It’s not that I actually needed a 15-pound slab of steel on which to bake pizzas.

I was doing well enough with the 20-pound Hearthkit stone that lived in my lower wall oven. But I wasn’t getting the puffy, crunchy rim of crust that’s one of the great pleasures of a true Neapolitan pizza. I realize that you can never really achieve that without an oven that reaches 800°, but other home pizza makers seem to get closer to it than I do, so I’m always on the lookout for better ways.

What started me on the path to a steel was a post on Roland Marandino’s blog Cooking from Books about a stand-alone countertop pizza oven. I was intrigued, so I googled the item and came across a review of it on the Serious Eats website. That author praised the oven but said it couldn’t compete with a baking steel and a hot broiler. Naturally, I had to look into this hitherto-unknown product. The same site had an extensive post about the steel.

I looked, I liked, I e-mailed the link to Tom. Within the hour we’d found the steel maker’s site and ordered one. In a few days it was established in our oven.

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steel

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Did it do the job for us? Well, not perfectly the first time. My fault, I think, because something went wrong when I made the dough. I followed a recipe I’d used before, and I’d swear I got the quantities right, but the dough came out horribly soft and wet, so I had to add a lot more flour to pull it together. It rose quite well, though, so I thought I’d salvaged it.

As dinner time approached, I preheated the steel for 45 minutes at 500°, then turned the oven to “broil” just before putting in the first pizza. Here are the two I made that evening, the first a simple margarita and the second with prosciutto.

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first two

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Not bad, but the crusts didn’t puff up as well as I’d hoped. They browned unevenly too; and in the front of the one on the left you can see ugly scales of dried flour. I hadn’t gotten the bottom crusts thin enough, either, so they were overly chewy. They both tasted good – all pizzas do – but in style they were only slightly better than my stone-baked pies.

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Discouraged but not daunted, I tried again a few days later. This time I used a recipe for Neapolitan-style pizza dough from the Serious Eats site. It made a beautiful dough: soft and pliable, feeling alive in the hands. I was able to stretch it very thin, while leaving a good thick rim – though I seem to be incapable of keeping a round of dough actually round. Then on to the topping and baking.

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second two

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These two may not look very different from the first pair, but they came out considerably better. The thin bottom crusts remained firm, the edges puffed and browned more, and some air bubbles had developed in them (a desideratum for a light, delicate crust). The browning was still uneven, which I think means that my oven is hotter in the back than the front. I’ll have to learn to turn the pizzas halfway through the cooking – especially because the darkest part of the crust was the best-tasting: crisp, crunchy, almost nutty. By the by: Those brown things in the center of the right-hand pizza are mushrooms, not scorch.

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Alas, I fear I still don’t qualify for a diploma from pizzaiolo school. But I’ve become convinced that the steel makes better pizza than the stone, so I’ll just have to keep working at it until I get the technique mastered. And since I don’t really know how much of the difference in the batches was due to the different dough recipes, for my next pizza practicum I’ll make that first dough again – carefully – and see how it comes out. It’s never a hardship to eat pizza!

montalbano cookbookEvery time I read a new Inspector Montalbano mystery from Andrea Camilleri or look at a DVD in the excellent Italian television series, one of its pleasures is discovering, along with Montalbano, whatever his housekeeper, Adelina, has cooked and left in the kitchen for him. I’ve already written posts about 10 of the Sicilian dishes mentioned in the books, but there are many more to tempt me. So this week, I tried two new-to-me recipes from I Segreti della Tavola di Montalbano.

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Pasta fredda con pomodoro, passuluna, e basilico

Early in The Snack Thief, coming home after an afternoon of investigation, “in the refrigerator Montalbano found a plate of cold pasta with tomatoes, basil, and passuluna olives that gave off an aroma to wake the dead.”

All the other recipes I’ve ever made or seen for pasta with uncooked sauce call for dressing the pasta when it’s hot. So this, which is dressed cold and served cold, is what I’d call a pasta salad. Of course, Adelina finishes her day’s work long before Montalbano gets home, so when she leaves meals for him they’re either something to heat in the oven or something to serve right out of the refrigerator. But this recipe isn’t quite like any other cold pasta salad I know.

The cookbook’s directions are minimal: For four persons, you cook 400 grams of penne rigati and dress them with “fresh tomatoes cut in pieces, as many black olives as you like, abundant basil, a few capers, olive oil, and salt” [my translation]. No quantities are given for any of these: a grand example of the fine Italian culinary phrase quanto basta – i.e., as much as is enough.

I consequently dithered a bit about quantities, but that wasn’t a real problem. The only trouble was the passulune. Apparently these are a variety of extremely ripe Sicilian olives that are purely air- or salt-cured. No vinegar or oil. Not a kind that makes it to New York City, even nowadays. The nearest I could get was oil-cured Moroccan black olives, which I soaked briefly in warm water to remove some of the oil and dried carefully.

So I did all that, making half the amount of pasta (seven ounces) for two, and tossing with the amounts of other ingredients that seemed basta to me:

1⅓ cups cut-up Cherokee tomatoes
⅓ cup black olives
⅓ cup chiffonade of basil
¾ teaspoon drained and rinsed capers
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil (plus a little extra)
½ teaspoons salt

The bowl then had to sit in the refrigerator for several hours. I must admit, when mine came out at dinner time, it didn’t really give off an aroma to wake the dead. Except for the basil, it wasn’t very fragrant at all. Refrigerator too cold? Or only passuluna olives would do? Who knows? Nevertheless, it still made a very nice picnic-style dish, ideal for warm-weather dining.

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pasta fredda

 

While it didn’t achieve a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts, they were all extremely good parts, and all the flavors complemented each other nicely. I’d even say that they worked better with cold pasta than they would have with hot.

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Pollo alla cacciatora

In Rounding the Mark, Montalbano returns from a boat trip feeling “irresistibly hungry, his appetite swelling inside him like a river in spate.” At home he dashes into the kitchen, looks in the oven, and finds “rabbit alla cacciatora, as unexpected as it was ardently desired.” He eats it with his hands – which, if Adelina’s dish even remotely resembled my version, had to be a very messy proposition. Livia would never have approved.

I should of course have made the dish with rabbit. But I’d just cooked a rabbit recently, I had some good chicken in the freezer, and alla cacciatora is a classic preparation for chicken too. So I made the substitution. It came out very well, and different from any other cacciatora recipe I’ve ever had.

Starting early, I began by making what the recipe calls the condimento. I put finely chopped onion, chopped celery, cubed tomatoes, green olives, and capers into a pan and sauteed them in olive oil. It was a huge amount of olives: about 30 of them for only 2 portions (half the recipe). The hunter must have shot his rabbit out of a tree in the middle of an olive grove! I felt sure we’d never eat that many.

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After 15 minutes I stirred in half a cup of broth, brought it to a boil, turned off the heat, covered the pan, and set it aside.

Toward dinner time I slowly sauteed chicken thighs and drumsticks – salted, peppered, and floured – in olive oil in another pan until they were completely cooked. Off heat, I poured on ¼ cup of wine vinegar in which I’d dissolved ½ tablespoon of honey, turning the chicken pieces a few times to let them absorb the flavors.

I brought the condimento back to a simmer, transferred the chicken and all its liquid to the condimento pan, cooked everything gently for another 15 minutes, and served.

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It was brilliant. Rather than a cacciatora, I’d call this dish an agrodolce, because of how the chicken and sauce were intriguingly imbued with the vinegar and honey. While the onions had completely melted into the sauce, the celery stayed pleasantly crunchy. And those olives were wonderful. They’d blended flavors with the other ingredients and become vegetables in their own right. I’ve never eaten so many olives at once in my life, or enjoyed them so much. Brava, Adelina!

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P.S. You can see my other culinary adventures with Montalbano here, here, and here.

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.

tomato box 2

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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.

book and picture

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.

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