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Oysters Pierre

Serendipity can be your best culinary ally.

Last week Tom and I took a short trip to Cape May for autumn-migration birding. It was great: In 4 days we saw 120 species of birds, everything from huge Bald Eagles to minute Golden-crowned Kinglets. And we ate some excellent seafood, chief among them Cape May Salts – for us, the best oysters on the East Coast. We always bring home a few pints of shucked oysters for the freezer.

On a woodland trail one morning we came across a tree with a big, fresh fruiting of sulfur shelf on its trunk. These golden-orange mushrooms are as delicious as they are handsome. (I didn’t have my camera, but Google has plenty of images of them, if you’re curious.) We broke off about a pound of the big fleshy fans and, that evening, sauteed them in butter in our motel kitchen. We ate some of them there and froze the rest.

???????????????????????????????Back home, having those oysters and mushroom made the perfect opportunity to try a recipe I’d been interested in from The Plantation Cookbook. Oysters Pierre is a rich New Orleans appetizer. (That’s a pleonasm, of course – all New Orleans dishes are rich!) The recipe doesn’t call for wild mushrooms, but I thought these would do well in the dish. And having previously made a splendid oyster stew from that book’s recipe, I approached this one with confidence.

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I selected a dozen of the small, plump oysters

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and Tom thinly sliced some of the mushroom, which I gave a short additional sauté in butter.

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Then I made a typical New Orleanian brown roux, adding minced parsley, scallion greens, and garlic, plus salt, cayenne, and white wine. (Actually, the wine should have been sherry, but I didn’t have any on hand.) The oysters and mushrooms went into the pan and simmered for 5 minutes.

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I put the mixture in two individual gratin dishes, topped with breadcrumbs, dotted with butter, and baked them in a moderate oven for 15 minutes.

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Yes, it was a rich dish – very. And very good. Unexpectedly, the sulfur shelf was the strongest flavor component of the dish, almost overwhelming the oysters. That wasn’t a serious problem, given how tasty that mushroom is, but we felt a little disappointed that the oysters didn’t have a chance to show at their best. Happily, we still have plenty of Cape May oysters in the freezer for further culinary pleasures.

Easiest Baked Apples

To round off a plain weekday dinner, I wanted a small sweet taste – something that would be no trouble to make. There were two apples in the fruit bowl. A tiny tart? No, it was too late in the day to defrost a piece of pastry, and making it fresh was more than I felt like doing. How about just baking them?

There’s a very good baked apple recipe in our second cookbook The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, but the preparation is fairly elaborate. The question became: What’s the minimum I can do to achieve decent baked apples? Joy of Cooking has a pretty simple recipe, but the winner was my mother’s ancient America’s Cook Book (which she received as a wedding present from her new grandparents-in-law in 1938).

three cookbooks

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The recipe doesn’t even require peeling the apples. Just core them, not cutting through the bottoms; fill the cavities with brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg; and top with a pat of butter.

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I put them in a deep baking dish, poured a little boiling water in the bottom of the dish, covered it and baked at 375° for half an hour. In the evening we ate them at room temperature, without even the recommended accompaniment of cream. During their baking, the skin of the apples pulled itself nicely away from the flesh, which absorbed good flavors from the fillings.

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They were very pleasant: soft, mildly sweet, and above all easy – just what the doctor ordered!

 

ColicchioI have a new favorite way to cook duck legs. It’s from Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef, an interestingly quirky, very readable book, quite unlike the usual run of cookbooks. Its recipes are organized in chapters titled Techniques, Studies, Trilogies, Component Cooking, and Favorites. As you turn pages, you never know what you might find next, and there’s not a single dessert recipe in the entire book. Bravo!

My duck preparation is from Colicchio’s Trilogies chapter, which features dishes using three ingredients that he regards as marrying well. One of his trios is duck, root vegetables, and apples. In this one, his Braised Duck with Apples, the vegetables and fruit are used only as a mirepoix and to flavor the sauce – but they do that most deliciously.

In midafternoon I started work by coarsely chopping quite a lot of carrot, celery, and onion. (My bespoke knife man hadn’t gotten home yet, so I did it all myself, she said proudly.) Then I browned two duck legs in a little olive oil and removed them to a plate. They had rendered lots of fat, so I poured most of it off and cooked the vegetables in the remainder for about 15 minutes. I added two garlic cloves, a sprig of tarragon, and a sprinkling of thyme, and cooked everything a few minutes more. While that was going on I’d heated a cup of broth, quartered an apple, cored it, and halved each piece.

Then I positioned the duck legs on top of the vegetables in the pan, placed the apple pieces around them, and poured on enough broth to just cover the vegetables. The pan went, uncovered, into a 350° oven, where it burbled along very gently for almost two hours, sending out wonderful aromas. Because I’d worried a bit about the dish’s drying out, I basted the legs frequently. They liked that. They came out meltingly tender, beautifully browned, and still crisp-skinned.

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I then set the pan at the back of the cold stove, covered it, and left it there. At dinner time all there was left to do was reheat the duck and strain the sauce.

Here I made a small strategic error. Rather than pressing the apple-vegetable mixture through a sieve, as directed – a tedious job – I decided to put it through the food mill. What that produced was a very soft puree, not a liquid sauce. I poured it back over the duck in its pan anyway for the reheating. It was mushy, but it tasted great – on mashed potatoes and peas, as well as on the tender, toothsome duck. But I’ll take the trouble to do the sauce properly next time.

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We both very much enjoy the dark, succulent meat of duck legs, and this recipe makes the most of their willingness to exchange flavors with fruit. It’s one I’ll be coming back to as our weather cools into autumn.

Four Days, Four Soups

This past week the onset of cool fall weather drove Tom to an extended frenzy of soup making. All I had to do was cheer him on and enjoy the results. He’s a talented soup maker, mostly in an improvisational style that he learned from his grandmother. (I once described his approach here.) This time he had some particular soups in mind, so he actually consulted cookbooks.

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Day 1: Potage Parmentier

This leek-and-potato classic is the very first recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering Volume 1. I remember being encouraged, all those years ago, that this then-somewhat daunting tome would begin so gently, with a dish using only four ingredients: leeks, potatoes, salt, and water. We’ve been making it ever since, in summer adding cream to turn it into vichyssoise. The leeks in our Greenmarket have finally gotten large enough to be worth cooking, and the local potatoes are coming along too. Voilà! Peel, wash, chop, and simmer, and you’ve got soup. It was excellent, as always.

Potage Parmentier

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Day 2: Touring à la Tomate

Another favorite from long ago is this simple tomato soup recipe from Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine. Tom began by sauteeing minced onions in lard. (Goose or duck fat is an alternative.) He then added peeled and chopped tomatoes – among the last of the season’s Cherokees – salt, pepper, and water. After simmering that for 10 minutes he put it all through a food mill and returned it to the pot. Just before dinner time he reheated it, added a batch of broken-up fine egg noodles, and cooked until they were tender.

Touring a la tomate

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A very lively, fresh-tasting soup. We have no idea why it’s called touring. Possibly a variant on tourain? Larousse Gastronomique cites a tomato soup of that name from Perigord – hence the goose fat? Or a derivation from “tureen,” in which the soup used to be cooked? If anyone knows, please tell us!

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Day 3: Escarole and Rice Soup

As soon as Tom saw this recipe in Marcella Hazan’s original Classic Italian Cookbook, years ago, it went straight to his heart. He rapidly internalized it and never needs to consult the book any more, but we still tip our notional toques to Marcella whenever he makes the soup.

He sautées onions and escarole in butter and olive oil, adds his homemade broth and cooks until the escarole is tender, then adds short-grained Italian rice (regular long-grain rice is OK too). Sometimes he stirs in grated parmigiano at the end; this time he wanted more of the pure vegetable flavors, so he seasoned it only with salt and pepper. A warming, filling, homey soup.

Escarole and rice soup

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Day 4: Fish Soup

For this evening we wanted a fish dinner, so Tom decided to invent a fish soup to start the meal. In the morning we went to the seafood stand at our Greenmarket for a swordfish steak, and he also bought small pieces of scrod and monkfish. Back home, he took a weakfish frame out of the freezer (saved after filleting a whole fish some time back) and made it into a fish broth.

He exercised his legendary knife skills to chop onion, celery, green pepper, and tomato; then make small chunks of potato and the two fish. He softened the first three vegetables in olive oil; stirred in the tomato, potato, thyme, salt, pepper, and a bay leaf; poured in the strained fish stock and simmered it all lengthily. He used a lot of thyme, because the model he had loosely in mind was Manhattan clam chowder, so the spicy cooking smells were really tempting. Shortly before dinner time he reheated the soup, added the scrod and monkfish pieces, and simmered it all gently until the fish were done but not falling apart.

Fish soup

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It was very tasty: mild, but just spicy enough to be interesting, with a good fresh fish flavor; too light to really call a chowder, but more chunky than a typical soup. Very comforting on a prematurely chilly fall evening.

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It’s a great advantage to live with a man who likes to cook!

 

 

 

 

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 shells hold 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.

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