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I was away last week in southern Maine. Beloved Spouse and I rented a cottage near the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, whose forests, marshes, estuaries, and beaches are scattered along 50 miles of the coastline. It was high season for the southbound migration of shorebirds, and we’d hoped to see vast numbers of them during our stay. Alas, we didn’t: There were disappointingly few birds of any kind, though the landscapes and seascapes were quite lovely. Why the birds didn’t appreciate that we can’t imagine. However, we did eat some wonderful seafood, as I’m about to show you.

Or course, there were good chowders: clam, fish, lobster, and mixed seafood. At home we make tomato-based, spicy Manhattan-style chowders, so the New England-style versions were a nice change of pace. Here’s a cup of one of the best we had. It was dense with fresh, tender clams, bathed in extravagant amounts of cream and butter.

clam chowder

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Another excellent appetizer was this bowl of steamers, also sparklingly fresh and briny; served with the traditional clam broth and drawn butter for dunking. From many years back, I remembered the knack of picking up each clam by the neck and grabbing the body with your teeth so it pulls right out of the neck skin, which you then discard.

steamers 2

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We ventured on a few more elaborate starters. Here’s a plate of baby lobster cakes and a dish of mushroom caps stuffed with crabmeat. Actually, they’d both have been better if they’d had somewhat less binder and more crustacean – but they were still pretty good.

appetizers

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Naturally, lobsters were everywhere. Over the week I think we saw more lobsters, both live and cooked, than we saw tourists – and, in Maine in August, that’s saying something! Since neither of us can readily dismember a whole boiled lobster without stabbing ourselves with a pick or a piece of shell or claw, we both happily ate a dish called Lazy Lobster: all the meat of a 1¼-pound lobster, taken out of the shell in large, neat chunks and presented in a pool of lemon butter.

lazy lobster

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Then there were the fried dishes. Clam strips, whole belly clams, oysters – always with good crunchy coatings and sweet tender flesh. Serving sizes were so generous that we never finished the french fries that always came along on the plate

fried things

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Last but not least, there were rolls. For our very first lunch in Maine, enroute to our rented cottage, we stopped at a little restaurant we knew nothing about, and I had the best lobster roll I’ve eaten in my life. It had the whole tail and both large claws of a lobster heaped on a lightly toasted, well flavored, large round roll. Alas, my camera was still packed in the duffle bag, so I couldn’t photograph it. For lunch a few days later, we had crab rolls, served more conventionally on a hot-doggish bun, with a good cole slaw and fried onion nuggets (the small central segments of onion slices whose big rings were used for standard fried onion rings). The crabmeat was finely shredded and dressed with a light tang of malt vinegar. Unusual (or so it semed to us), and very nice.

crab roll

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We probably ate more butter and more fried food during this single week than we usually do in a whole season, but the dreadful fact that neither nutritionists nor dieters nor “healthy eaters” ever want to acknowledge is that, when done well, frying makes all food – but especially ocean-fresh seafood – taste marvelous. So, despite the dearth of birds, our trip to Maine had some powerful consolations.

contentment

 

Beloved Spouse is the gumbo cook in our household. In summer, when okra is abundant, he gathers his ingredients about him and produces a gumbo that IMHO equals anything a New Orleans chef can do. I’ve written here about his seafood gumbo, and now I’d like to introduce you to another kind that he makes.

Usually, he starts from the gumbo recipes in Richard and Rima Collins’ The New Orleans Cookbook, checks back with the chosen one from time to time to remind himself of details, but then goes on to vary the ingredients and proportions to suit himself. Always using okra: He’s not a filé gumbo person, and he has a decided preference for the kind of flavor an okra gumbo develops.

okra

For this occasion a large boneless chicken breast, two Louisiana andouilles, and a chunk of thick-cut boiled ham provided the protein base. He cut the chicken into chunks, the sausages into coins, and the ham into dice. Continuing the preparatory knife work, he then sliced ¾ pound of okra (Note to the squeamish: If the okra, your knife, and the cutting surface are dry, the okra slime will not be a problem) and chopped up a cup of green pepper, a cup of onions, ¼ cup of scallions, and a large heirloom tomato. Very simple prep work, if a little time consuming.  My only contribution was to set out the other ingredients he’d be needing: olive oil, flour, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, cayenne, salt and black pepper.

gumbo ingredients

After browning the chicken pieces in olive oil and removing them to a plate, he stirred flour into the oil and cooked it about 10 minutes, to a light brown roux. Then the andouille, ham, and all the vegetables except the okra and tomato got added in and stirred. After 10 more minutes, the chicken rejoined the pot, along with all the spices and a little water. This cooked for yet another 10 minutes and then – finally – in went the okra, tomatoes, and a quart of water.

gumbo broth

At this point, the pot got covered and the gumbo cooked gently for an hour, with an occasional stir, after which it was done. I was permitted to check occasionally to be sure it was continuing to simmer and that nothing was sticking. And at dinner time, I cooked the rice.

gumbo plated

This was a terrific gumbo. The andouilles’ own spices had permeated all the ingredients, giving a much needed boost to the bland chicken breast. (The chef wished ardently that we had had some legs and thighs on hand.) All the vegetables merged seamlessly into a stew that tasted purely of New Orleans. And, as always, we wound up eating most of a portion that was supposed to feed four.

Zucchini Bella Napoli

Costata romanesca is a ribbed Roman zucchini variety – one almost never found in stores. Elizabeth Schneider, in her monumental tome Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, says this of it:

SchneiderAlthough more flavorful than the bland commercial zucchini . . . it quickly loses its vigor and savor. When solid and young, it is juicy, refreshing, and summery-sweet, but it quickly turns bland, flabby, and rather bitter. Seek it out at farmers’ markets, where it will be freshest.

Fortunately, I can follow that advice: These zucchini are a regular summer item in my Greenmarket. I buy a few of them from Cherry Lane Farm’s stand just about every week. I don’t know about them turning bland and bitter – mine never stay uneaten long enough to tell.

zucchini

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For my latest batch I browsed Schneider’s pages on zucchini in search of something more elaborate than I usually make. I was intrigued by a brief description of a restaurant chef’s dish called Zucchini Parmigiana. It said he flours and deep-fries lengthwise slices of costata romanesca, layers them with mozzarella, grated parmigiano, basil leaves, and bittersweet chocolate bits, and bakes the dish uncovered, in the manner of eggplant pamigiana.

Chocolate bits! That was a new one on me. I knew that old-style Roman and Campanian cooking does use chocolate in savory dishes, but I was pretty sure it’s always bitter chocolate, and it’s grated into tomato sauce so it dissolves into the sauce. I wasn’t sure how the chocolate bits in the chef’s recipe would behave, but I was willing to give it a try.

Then I had second thoughts. There’s essentially no liquid in the dish: Wouldn’t it just dry out in the oven? Could the word “tomato” have been dropped from the brief recipe description? After all, eggplant parmigiana always contains some tomato. Maybe a few alterations would be prudent.

My book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen has a recipe called Zucchini Bella Napoli that bears a strong family resemblance to that zucchini parmigiana. Other than the chocolate bits, the only differences in the preparation are that mine has no parmigiano but does spread a little fresh tomato sauce, along with the mozzarella, on the layers in the baking dish. I decided to make it that way and just add parmigiano and chocolate bits. (I had some in the freezer, left over from making Christmas cookies.)

So: Beloved Spouse obligingly reduced three costata romanesca zucchini to thin slices for me, which I salted and set in a colander in the sink for half an hour to drain off some of their moisture.

salted

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Then I floured and fried them in olive oil until they were barely colored. I also made a light sauce from fresh San Marzano tomatoes, adding basil and a little chopped onion.

sauce

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And then I started layering. I must say it felt silly to be dotting those chocolate morsels all around the dish.

layering

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After a top layer of tomato and grated parmigiano, the dish went into a moderate oven. It needs to be baked only until the juices are bubbling, so it was ready in 20 minutes. But the chocolate bits had made no concession toward blending with the other ingredients. Each one still sat right where it had been put, barely softened.
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baked

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Now, the Bella Napoli recipe makes a really delightful dish, even with ordinary zucchini, and even if you fry in oil other than olive. It’s good hot, warm, or room temperature, as a first course, a side dish, or a meatless main course. The flavors all enhance and complement each other, just as they do in a good eggplant parmigiana. But this time those flavors had to contend with incompatible gobbets of sweet chocolate, which totally destroyed the harmony.

Not for long, though: After a few experimental bites, we fished out all the chocolate bits and pushed them aside on our plates. Mercifully, they’d left behind no traces, so we enjoyed our zucchini parmigiana very much.

It’s possible that true bitter chocolate, grated and blended into a denser, longer cooked sauce, might make an interesting – and quite different – dish. I may try that one day.

Peach Cake

August is National Peach Month, and it’s easy to see why. The markets are full of peaches now, all bursting ripe and fragrant; and it won’t be many weeks before the lovely fruits are gone.

peach collage

I’ve read that their season is so short because peach trees ripen all their fruits at once, rather than in succession over the growing season, as other fruit trees do. So it behooves us to eat peaches as often as we can while they’re at their luscious summer best, and avoid the flavorless, rock-hard, never-ripening things that agribusiness calls peaches during the rest of the year.

In that spirit, I made an excellent peach cake the other day, adapting a recipe for pear cake that appears in my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It’s a quick and easy cake to make, with just one mixing bowl and no separating of eggs. The only extravagant thing about it is the 10 tablespoons of butter that go into a 9- or 10-inch cake. This is the original recipe:

Pear Cake Recipe

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For my peach version, I creamed unsalted Irish butter with the confectioner’s sugar and beat in two jumbo eggs. I sifted in a cup of cake flour and the baking powder, and beat it into a smooth batter. I spread the batter in the baking dish and arranged three sliced peaches over the top.

unbaked

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I baked the cake at 350° for 45 minutes. As it cooked, it scented half the apartment with the warm, sweet essence of peaches. The batter obligingly rose up around the fruit to fill the dish but not enough to spill over, and the surface turned a pretty golden brown.

baked

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Experimentally, this time I’d tried a few changes from the pear version of the recipe. Because I had jumbo eggs, I used two instead of three; and because I had cake flour in the pantry I used it instead of all-purpose. (The lower protein content of cake flour is supposed to give cakes more structure and tenderness.) Also, I skipped the indicated topping of granulated sugar before baking. None of those changes seemed to harm the cake any: It was a delightful summer dessert.

slice

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And the next morning, when Beloved Spouse took the remaining cake out of the refrigerator, cut himself a slice, spread it with butter, and warmed it in the toaster oven, he declared it to be an excellent summer breakfast too. Happy Peach Month, everyone!

Ham Sandwiches

What would American lunchtime be without ham sandwiches? From the basic ham on rye with mustard, though the many pleasing permutations of ham-and-cheese, to Dagwood-like exuberances of the individual imagination (not to mention one of my own favorites, ham and potato salad) – ham seems to have been created to make good sandwiches.

Browsing in my big recipe binder recently, I came upon a page on which I’d pasted recipes for three unusual kinds of ham sandwiches – two familiar and one untried. It seemed an interesting plan to taste them all close together.

For the first two I was able to use my regular homemade bread:

white bread plus

This is White Bread Plus, from Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, which I’ve written about here before.   It’s a superior sandwich bread.

 

Celery and Ham Sandwich

This is simply chopped boiled ham and chopped celery, dressed with mayonnaise and mustard.  It may not sound unusual, but it surprised me to find that the whole was quite a bit greater than the sum of its parts. I hadn’t previously considered celery as a significant companion for ham. Top-quality ingredients help, of course. I used homemade mayonnaise and good Dijon mustard.

celery ham

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The combination doesn’t sound very Italian either, but I found the recipe in Marcella’s Italian Kitchen. It’s also available online. I like to go a little heavier on the ham than Hazan indicates. Overall, I feel the proportions given are a little odd, because the half recipe’s worth of the mixture that I made would easily have filled the whole recipe’s three sandwiches, especially if I’d taken the crusts off the bread as instructed – which I usually don’t.

sandwich 1

 

World’s Best Ham Sandwich

This is one of Beloved Spouse’s inventions, though I’m responsible for giving it the name and recording its composition for posterity. As I explained in a previous post, he considers sandwich making the most important branch of architecture, and he assembles complex, delicious sandwiches from things he finds in the refrigerator. Here are the ingredients for this one:

ingredients for #2

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The construction process starts with lightly toasted slices of my homemade bread. Butter goes on one slice, aioli on the other. The ham is jambon de Paris, a specially good variety of boiled ham. Then you add slivers of raw onion, bread & butter pickles (all the better if homemade), pickled ginger, Tuscan pepperoncini (seeds removed), a layer of romaine, and a few leaves of cilantro. This day I didn’t have any fresh cilantro, so I defrosted a cube of cilantro pesto and spread some on the ham. Altogether, a fascinating symphony of flavors!

sandwich 2

 

Prosciutto, Havarti, and Apple Sandwich

This is a recipe that I clipped from the New York Times several years ago. I found it rather curious. For one thing, I don’t recall ever seeing apple used on a sandwich. But mainly, this is a grilled sandwich, yet one that you aren’t supposed to eat right away. You must let it cool and put in the refrigerator overnight. I couldn’t see why, but it was time to give it a try.

The sandwich was to be made on a split piece of “ciabatta sandwich bread.” I wasn’t sure what was meant by that, so I bought some rectangular ciabatta rolls. But then, since the assembled sandwich was going to be grilled in butter, I thought it couldn’t make sense to have only the hard outside crust in contact with the butter. So I prevailed on Beloved Spouse to pare off most of it to expose the softer, more absorbent crumb. It didn’t cooperate smoothly.

To compose the sandwich I laid thin slices of havarti cheese on one piece of bread, topped that with slices of prosciutto, then a layer of thinly sliced apple, another layer of havarti, and finally the second piece of bread.

uncooked 3

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I melted butter in a hot skillet, put in the sandwich, put a heavier skillet on top, and pressed it down for 2½ minutes on each side.

grilling 3

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The sandwich came out looking and smelling quite nice, but it wasn’t to be eaten yet.

grilled 3

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Dutifully, I let the sandwich cool, slid it into a plastic bag, and deposited it in the refrigerator. Mid-morning of the next day I set it out on the kitchen counter to let it come back to room temperature for my lunch.

sandwich 3

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This was one solid sandwich. The havarti had melted completely into the butter-saturated bread and solidified there, turning the bread’s normal open texture quite dense and heavy. (Too much butter? Maybe if I’d left on all the crust, it wouldn’t have absorbed so much?) The slightly salty prosciutto was a tasty enough foil to the sweet, crunchy apple, which lightened and brightened up the entire combination. However, the Times story had praised the sandwich as an excellent one to make in advance for a brown-bag lunch, and I can’t help feeling it would have been much better if eaten fresh out of the skillet.

If you’d like to try it and decide for yourself, the recipe is available online.

My conclusions from sampling all three: It’s hard to screw up good ham. These were all more than edible, and the one that’s best, I have to say, is probably the one you’re in the mood for, or the one that suits the energy you want to put into making it.

Eels are not to everybody’s taste. Their snakelike appearance and alleged insalubrious habits may well be off-putting. When, as a weekend fisherman, Beloved Spouse once inadvertently caught an eel, we found it repulsive to handle, difficult to dispatch, and proverbially hard to skin. But eels can make delicious eating – e.g., smoked, grilled, or in sushi.

One of the Long Island seafood sellers in my Greenmarket has had a fairly regular supply of small eels this summer, very fresh, neatly beheaded, gutted, and skinned – all the nasty work done for us. I’ve bought them twice already.

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Anguille alla Romana

Eels 1.

del riccio romaFor these first two, six-ouncers, I used a recipe for Eels Roman-style from a cookbook I bought long ago in Italy called Le Ricette della mia Cucina Romana. I softened chopped spring onion and parsley in olive oil in a terracotta pan, then floured and browned the cut-up eels in it. Well, sort of browned them – they didn’t change color much.

Next I sprinkled the eels with salt, pepper, and two tablespoons of white wine. As soon as the wine had evaporated, I poured on plain hot water and let them cook covered for about 20 minutes. The eels’ own gelatin turned the liquid into a light, creamy sauce.

in pan 1

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Then I added a cup of blanched fresh shell peas and a little more hot water, and continued cooking for another 20 minutes.

in pan 2

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That was it. A very simple, very satisfying dish. The eels didn’t taste at all fishy, but not quite meaty either. People tend to describe eel as rich, sweet, and oily, like blowfish, monkfish or octopus. To me, it almost tasted like pork. It made a good combination with the peas and was perfectly tender: The flesh came easily off the spine bones.

plated

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Catigot d’Anguilles à la Gardiane

eels 2

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T-L fishMy second pair of eels were smaller – about four ounces apiece. For them I chose a provençal Ragout of Eels recipe from the Fish volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. It was another very easy preparation. In a broad saucepan I muddled together olive oil, smashed garlic, half a bay leaf, some thyme, a piece of orange peel, and a tiny dried hot red pepper. The eels went in next, along with some salt and ¼ cup of red wine.
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eels 2 in pan

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Again, the main cooking liquid was water, almost to cover, but this time the dish cooked uncovered. The eels took a little over half an hour to tenderize, by which time the liquid had reduced quite a lot but hadn’t thickened. It was too acidic to use as a gravy so I lifted out the eels for serving.

eels 2 served

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They were thoroughly imbued with those provençal seasonings, and very rich. Good tasting, but surprisingly heavy. We actually couldn’t eat too much of them. But it was an interesting experiment in contrast to the very pleasant Roman-style dish.

Whenever Beloved Spouse goes food shopping by himself, I know he’ll come home with at least one fancy thing that wasn’t on his list. This week, at our local Eataly, he was seduced by a display of gigantic artichokes. The one he proudly presented to me weighed in at 1¼ pounds. (I’ve learned never to ask what these serendipities cost.)

artichoke

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We’re fond of artichokes, which I usually simply boil and serve as an appetizer, either warm with drawn butter or room temperature with vinaigrette. This monster I thought deserved something more elaborate. I decided to stuff it.

SchwartzMany Italian cookbooks have carciofi imbottiti recipes, usually all quite similar. The one in Arthur Schwartz’s Naples at Table is a bit different because its stuffing is not based on dry breadcrumbs but on mollica di pane – the crustless interior of Italian bread. I hadn’t seen that before, so I thought I’d try it. (If Beloved Spouse is a sucker for a giant vegetable, I’m an easy mark for an uncommon recipe.)

Preparing the artichoke for stuffing was something of a struggle. After cutting off the prickly tips of the leaves and the top of the cone, I had to tease open the entire flower, pull off the small, translucent central leaves, and dig out the choke. Gargantua strongly resisted this dismembering. But I got them out eventually.

preparing

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I set the artichoke to soak in cold water for half an hour while I prepared its stuffing. I cut the crust from a chunk of day-old bread, broke it in pieces, soaked them in cold water, squeezed them nearly dry, and chopped them small. To that I added a mince of capers, anchovy, parsley, and garlic, then mixed everything together with olive oil and hot red pepper flakes.

stuffing mix

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Next was to drain the artichoke and tuck bits of the stuffing between each row of leaves and inside the central cavity; set it in a deep pot; drizzle on more olive oil, salt, pepper, and a few dry breadcrumbs; and pour a cup of water around it.

cooking

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When the water came to a boil, I was to cover the pot and simmer for 45 minutes or until the artichoke was tender. With the size of my artichoke, it was over an hour before a fork poked into its base encountered no resistance, and I’d had to add several doses of hot water during that time to keep the pot from boiling dry. I served the artichoke warm as a dinner first course for two.

served

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Alas, I have to say it was disappointing. Even though the artichoke bottom had tenderized nicely, most of the large leaves were still quite tough, so it took some serious tooth-and-jaw work to strip a little flesh from them, which wasn’t even as flavorful as it is in my usual smaller artichokes. I guess I should have cooked it longer, but now I’m wondering if that artichoke had been overgrown, to a stage of incorrigible leatheriness.

Also, we didn’t care for the texture of the stuffing. The bread component had become gummy – almost spongy. Finally, the other flavorings of the stuffing were rather coarse. Altogether, this was not one of my better culinary experiments.

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