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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!

 

???????????????????????????????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.

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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.

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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!

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