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As I’ve had occasion to say here before, eels are not to everybody’s taste. The eeeww! factor is just too strong. That’s a pity, though, because eels can be delicious. They are among the meatiest of fish, with rich white flesh that comes easily off the bone. And, as long as the seller skins them for you, eels are easy to cook and good served in many different ways.

Here’s a trio of small eels from my Greenmarket. They’re only occasionally available – spring and fall, the fish man says, when they’re heading upstream to grow and downstream to mate at sea – so I often buy them to put in the freezer until we want them. Eels freeze well.


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In a previous post I wrote about making a very good recipe for eels Roman-style from the Roman volume of a regional Italian cookbook series. For this latest dish I went to the Venetian volume of the same series and followed its recipe for eels Venetian-style – essentially a braise in tomatoes. (Unusual for a recipe from this region: Tomato doesn’t feature prominently in Venetian cooking.)

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To start, I softened chopped garlic, onion, and parsley in olive oil, along with half a bay leaf. I added the eels, cut in pieces, and sautéed them for a few minutes just to imbue them with the seasonings. They don’t turn brown.
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Next was to raise the heat, add white wine, salt, and pepper, and cook until the wine evaporates. I have to admit that eels get really ugly as they begin to cook in liquid. I’ve learned not to let that distress me – they always come out fine in the end.
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When the wine was gone, I deglazed the pan, stirred in ¾ cup of chopped tomatoes, covered and cooked gently for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. All this simple cookery can be done in advance.
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That evening I made a batch of polenta to accompany the braised eels. Notice how the tomato sauce cleverly conceals any unsightliness of the eel pieces. Once we began tasting the combination, we didn’t mind what it looked like or where it came from – it was just very, very good. The slightly spicy, slightly acidic tomato sauce beautifully complemented the sweet flesh of the eels, and both combined happily with the velvety bed of polenta: fine simple dining.
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Tom adds a few words about the evening’s wine:
All these flavors went very well with a bottle of Etna bianco (100% Carricante) from Benanti, a Sicilian wine designed by nature to go with fish of all sorts. Even those who eeeww! at eel tend to aaahh! at Benanti.

I’ve always disliked lima beans. I never eat them by choice. But I recently got tired of looking at the jar of dried limas sitting in my pantry – leftovers from making a recipe that used some in a modest supporting role a few years ago – and resolved to do something with them.

(From the above title you’ve no doubt gathered that this story is not going to have a happy ending. Since I’ve done many posts on recipes that came out extremely well for me, I feel it’s only fair to admit to some that haven’t.)

We were having chilly fall weather just then, which made a soup sound like a good idea. It would have to be not too elaborate, so if the limas let me down I wouldn’t have wasted all the other ingredients. But also not too bare-boned, lest there be too few supporting flavors for the beans to blend with.

In my ancient, rebound copy of Joy of Cooking I found a recipe simply called Dried Bean Soup, which offered a choice of navy, kidney, lima, or marrow beans. It looked as if it would do, so I soaked a cup of the limas overnight. The next morning they’d tripled in volume and looked pretty good, which was encouraging. They were to start cooking in boiling water with a bay leaf, whole cloves, peppercorns, and a meat ingredient: either ham, a ham bone, or salt pork. I had a chunk of salt pork in the freezer.

 

 

As the cooking began, it was not so encouraging. The required eight cups of water looked like an awful lot for the amount of beans, and the salt pork quickly released a lot of scummy fats. Well, plenty of time for it to improve, I hoped.

 

 

While it simmered along, I chopped the remaining ingredients: generous quantities of carrot, onion, and especially celery.

 

 

After two hours my beans had softened enough that, as the recipe directed, I added the chopped vegetables for a final 30 minutes. At least they made the soup look less like sludgy dishwater.

 

 

At this point the recipe suggested optional additions: garlic, saffron, sorrel, mashed potatoes. Oh, come on, Irma – have the courage of your basic preparation! Is it going to be OK without these things or isn’t it? I added only salt.

When the carrots were tender, I had to remove the meat and puree everything through a food mill. I pause to mention that my salt pork was so fatty there was hardly any meat to work with, and it was very stringy. But back to the pureeing. A blender or food processor would have done it faster, but there was so much liquid there that I thought milling might give it more texture.

 

 

The recipe then said to thin the soup, if necessary, with water or milk. Not a problem here: The soup was so thin I had to boil it down some. Didn’t help much. The bowl looked something that’d be served at Oliver Twist’s workhouse.

 

 

And so it was: like the worst kind of meager, insipid, institutional food. The only detectable flavors were clove, celery, and pork fat. Well, at least it didn’t taste like lima beans! I hate to waste food, but I tossed the rest of it.

I wonder now just where I went so wrong. If the limas hadn’t been so old … if I’d had a good piece of ham … if I’d used less water … if I’d tried one of the optional additions … would I have had a decent soup? I don’t know, but I’m not interested in finding out.

I threw away the rest of my dried limas.

When it comes to pasta, I’m a traditionalist. I don’t approve of restaurant chefs who need to vaunt their “creativity” with dishes whose ingredients have never before encountered each other on a plate. There’s a reason some pasta combinations are classics: they work! But even a cranky person like me can occasionally appreciate something new.

This time it came about because Tom noticed that a farm stand at our Greenmarket was featuring boxes of very fresh, small king oyster mushrooms.

 

 

He couldn’t resist them. We’d had ordinary oyster mushrooms before, but not this different variety, which have been available locally only in much larger, stemmier sizes. I looked them up in Elizabeth Schneider’s magisterial Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini to see if they needed any special handling. The answer was yes: moist cooking to tenderize the very dense flesh.

Then I needed a recipe to make them with, so I did an Internet search for recipes using oyster mushrooms. The description of this one attracted me: “Oyster mushrooms are poached in butter and cream and tossed with pasta, Parmesan cheese and green onions.” Obviously, that’s not a classic Italian pasta preparation, but there was a reason I decided to try it: I happened to have a lot of scallions in the refrigerator.

 

 

My faithful knife man cut the mushrooms into small pieces, which I was to sauté for six minutes in butter, adding parsley, salt, and pepper for the last minute. Apparently if they had been the common oyster mushroom, as in the recipe, they’d have been tender by that point, but these sturdier ones weren’t yet.

 

 

When I poured on the recipe’s amount of heavy cream, I could see that it wasn’t going to be enough liquid for poaching, so I took it on myself to add a little broth.

 

 

Next I was to cook the mixture “at a gentle boil” for about five minutes, until the sauce thickened slightly. I was concerned that doing so might dry up the sauce and toughen the mushrooms, so instead I covered the pan and simmered it until the mushrooms were tender. The sauce didn’t thicken much, but I didn’t consider that a problem.

I set the mushroom pan aside while I cooked the pasta – linguine, as recommended – and chopped up two of my many scallions. I finished the dish right in the pan of sauce, tossing in the drained pasta, the scallions, and a few tablespoons of grated parmigiano.

 

 

I really hadn’t been expecting much, especially with the scallions going in raw at the end like that, but to our great pleasure everything came together extremely well. The linguine absorbed a good amount of the sauce, leaving the dish just moist enough. The mushrooms were delicious – the caps tasting noticeably different from and even better than the stems. The scallions also made a real contribution to the harmony of flavors, aromas, and textures.

I still wouldn’t call this an Italian dish, but it certainly was a good one. Guess I have to admit that the “classics” don’t have an exclusive lock on excellent pasta combinations.

It’s a great pleasure to find a new, good, simple, dessert recipe. For a dinner visit by a good friend, I was planning a New Orleans-style meal. There’d be a crabmeat appetizer, followed by a chicken and sausage gumbo. We’d need something light and refreshing for dessert.

Lightness not being a characteristic of New Orleans cuisine, I had to search extensively in my kitchen library, but I finally hit a winner in Richard and Rima Collin’s New Orleans Cookbook. The recipe’s headnote description attracted me immediately: “Fresh ripe pears sauteed in butter, seasoned with spices and kirsch, and topped with vanilla ice cream. As the ice cream melts over the warm fruit, a delicious sauce forms.”

With pears just coming into season, it seemed an ideal way to end the dinner. There was even a long-lasting bottle of kirsch sitting at the back of my pantry.

But pears can be tricky: They mostly come on the market rock-hard, can take a long time to ripen, and are very susceptible to bruising. Delicate Bartletts in particular have a nasty habit of spoiling from the interior. You cut open an apparently just-ripe pear and find it all brown and mushy around the core. For that reason I usually buy Boscs, which seem a little more reliable. But this recipe wanted unpeeled pears, and Boscs have fairly chewy, dingy brown skins. I’d try the dish with Bartletts.

Gingerly picking up and examining all the pears in the market bin, I chose these three as the most promising.

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I carried them home tenderly and left them out in the fruit bowl for a few days until they just began to yield to pressure. Then I moved them to the refrigerator for another two days, hoping they wouldn’t be over-ripe when I was ready to use them.

Happily, they weren’t. On the morning of the dinner party I halved, cored, and cut the pears into ¼-inch slices.
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I sautéed them in melted butter over low heat, turning the slices with excruciating care so as not to break them up.
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As soon as they’d all gotten well acquainted with the butter, I gradually sprinkled a mixture of sugar, cinnamon, ground cloves, and freshly grated nutmeg on the pears. More delicate turning and mixing. In less than 10 minutes, the pears were almost tender, which was my signal to pour on 3 tablespoons of kirsch, stir once more, and turn off the heat. There was no cooking off of the alcohol: very New Orleans!
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Cooled and covered, the panful of pears sat on a broad windowsill until dessert time. I then gently heated them back to bubbling, distributed the (very soft but still largely intact) slices and their liquid into three dishes, and topped each with a scoop of the best artisanal vanilla ice cream I could get my hands on.
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The ice cream immediately did its promised job of melting over the warm fruit and blending with the fragrant juices into a sauce for the pears. It all made a lovely light dessert, tasting exactly as you can imagine the combination of those sweet fruit and spice flavors would. Very welcome and refreshing after a spicy gumbo, and a good conclusion to a good dinner among good friends.

Roasted Quails

Quails are always a treat for me. The very first time I tasted them was in the very first dinner I had in Italy. It was in Rome, 1974, a neighborhood trattoria called La Capricciosa. The weekly menu was a mimeographed broadsheet listing 40 fish, fowl, and meat dishes. Bewildered by the abundance and amazingly low prices, I could hardly believe it when I saw “2 quaglie” – two quails – offered for 1300 lire, which then was about $2. I had to have them!

I can’t remember now how they were cooked – possibly just sauteed in butter with sage leaves – but they were beautifully brown, tender, and juicy. I took home the menu, and here it is. If you click on the image, you can read it clearly. The quail entry is down on the lower left.

 

 

For years after, every time we were in Rome, I had to go at least once to Capricciosa for quaglie. It was a sort of home away from home for us, and we loved everything about it, from its slightly run-down appearance and furnishings to the two musicians – an old violinist and a young guitarist – who made the rounds every evening. Then a fire closed the restaurant for a few years, and when it reopened it was a much fancier kind of place. And no more quails. Sigh.

These days, I occasionally treat myself to a pair of quails at home. Mostly when Tom is either away on a trip or out at a business dinner, because he finds the little birds difficult to cope with. A bushy moustache is a liability for hand-held nibbling of meat from tiny bones, which is pretty much the only practical way to eat anything on a quail other than the breast.

 

 

This latest pair are a little odd looking, having kept the stretched-out position into which they’d been frozen, rather than being plumped up like miniature chickens. I decided to roast them, using a recipe of my own from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. Since the lean little birds need a protective layer of fat to keep them from drying out in the oven, I draped each one with a round of pancetta, which adds flavor as well as moistening.

 

 

In the absence of pancetta, blanched bacon or salt pork works for the covering, too. (BTW, notice how thin the string around the pancetta is? I’d run out of kitchen twine, so I used dental floss.)

While the oven preheated to 400°, I browned the quails in butter, along with a few sage leaves. The preliminary sauté is necessary for color, because of the short time the birds would be in the oven.

 

 

I transferred them to a baking dish, deglazed their sauté pan with white wine, and poured the juices over the quails. In the oven, they roasted for 25 minutes and were ready to eat.

 

 

They were wonderfully tasty and, as always, took me back in memory to Capricciosa’s quaglie.

I still have my journal notes on that first Roman dinner. Tom and I had two antipasti, two pastas, two main courses, a liter and a half of wine, two espressos, a grappa, and an amaro – all for 8,500 lire, or about $16. Today, with inflation, my $2 quails would translate to about $10 and the whole meal $65 – but just try to think what this meal would cost today in any restaurant that could serve it!

 

Spareribs, Friuli Style

This dish began with a mistake. Here are some unprepossessing pieces of pork.

 

 

How did I get them? I asked the butcher for country-style spareribs, but I didn’t look closely at what he brought out from the back of the store. What I recalled as country ribs were like regular spareribs but with a much thicker layer of meat. When I got home I saw that I had two big odd-shaped slabs of pork with odd-shaped bones attached to them in odd places. (There are three here because I cut one in half.)

Subsequent research has taught me that country ribs come from the ribs right up against the animal’s shoulder, so they have more shoulder bone on them than rib bone. OK, but shouldn’t they still have been shaped like narrow rectangles – in effect, long bones with meat on them? Not these. One of them even looked like a misshapen loin chop. Clearly, some miscommunication had occurred.

Well, they were what they were, and I’d have to make do with them. But what should I do with them? They didn’t look as if they’d reward broiling or grilling, as normal spareribs do. Long, moist cooking seemed to be what they’d need.

Happily, I found just the thing in Michele Scicolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes. Spuntature di Maiale alla Friulana, or Spareribs Friuli Style, is a brown braise – not the kind of preparation that immediately springs to mind when thinking of Italian cooking. Friuli is the region at the extreme northeast of Italy, bordering on Austria and Slovenia, as well as the Dolomites and the Adriatic. There are strong German and Slavic influences in its foodways.

Whatever its heritage, I felt sure I was going to like the recipe. Its first step is to flour and brown the ribs in olive oil.

 

 

When the ribs come out, the same oil is used to soften and brown chopped carrot and onion.

 

 

After that, the pan is deglazed with white wine and the ribs go back in, along with some good broth (Tom’s rich brew from mixed bones, meat scraps, and vegetable trimmings, which we always have in the freezer).

 

 

My ribs simmered along in the covered pot for the recipe’s 1½ hours and then needed another 15 minutes to be fully tender. The recipe didn’t say to strain or puree the gravy, and it had thickened nicely by itself so I didn’t mind the remaining soft little bits of carrot and onion.

 

 

Plain boiled Romano beans and mashed potatoes both liked that gravy just as much as the spareribs did. A very tasty, homey, comforting meal, and really quite simple to make.

 

 

Of course, it wasn’t exactly a summery dish, but never mind that. Though we ate it on one of our many ghastly hot, humid days, the level at which Tom keeps the air conditioning in our apartment is perfectly conducive to cold-weather fare. He claims it’s all for my own good: He needs it cool to boil up all that useful broth.

Mexican Corn Soup

A good cookbook is a treasure chest. You can have it for years, returning to it again and again for the same few favorite recipes, and then one day you open it to a different page and find an unsuspected gem. I’ve just lucked in that way with Diana Kennedy’s 45-year-old classic The Cuisines of Mexico.

This was my very first Mexican cookbook, and many of its recipes intimidated me quite a bit, back then. Ingredients were strange and not easy to find. Cooking procedures were unfamiliar too. My first attempt was Kennedy’s guacamole, which we adored at first bite. Little by little, I tried other dishes, eventually working up to her magnificent 4½-page chiles rellenos recipe. As my confidence grew – and Latin-American ingredients became more accessible here – I acquired other Mexican cookbooks, newer ones that caught my interest and largely displaced Kennedy from my repertoire. Except for her guacamole, which is still the only one I ever make.

Now in late summer, when my greenmarket’s bountiful fresh corn keeps calling out to me, I recalled that Kennedy has recipes for corn soups (one of which I’d blogged about several years ago). Why not try another one? So I did, and it was an idea as brilliant as the recipe. It’s called simply sopa de elote – corn soup, and there’s very little but corn in it.

For half a recipe, I had to cut two cups of kernels off fresh ears of corn. (I had four ears ready, but only three were needed.)

 

 

The next instruction seemed very odd: first, put the corn and half a cup of water into a blender and process to a smooth puree; then put that puree through a food mill. Seemed like suspenders and a belt! But OK, I did it. It made a surprising difference.

 

 

As you see above, what the blending produced seemed to be smooth, but the food mill extracted a lot of chaff from the kernels, leaving a slightly thick corn liquid.

In a saucepan I melted 2 tablespoons of butter and cooked the corn liquid in it for 5 minutes, stirring continuously. Then I stirred in 1¾ cups of milk and a little salt, brought it to a boil, and simmered it for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The butter kept trying to rise and separate out as the soup cooked, but it didn’t seem to be a problem.

 

While the soup simmered I prepared small amounts of garnishes to go in each bowl. Here I took a few liberties with the ingredients given in the recipe:

  • It calls for a dice of fresh chile poblano – or canned green chilies if necessary. It’s now easy to get fresh poblanos, but I had one, roasted, peeled and seeded, remaining in the freezer from last fall’s crop, so I used that.
  • It calls for crumbled cream cheese or Boursault. I was sure those were substitutes for a Mexican cheese that wasn’t widely available in the US in the 70s. Now we can easily get authentic queso fresco, which crumbles nicely. I used that.
  • It calls for small squares of tortilla that I’d have had to fry to crispness. Out of pure laziness, I just broke up some packaged corn tortilla chips.

To finish the dish I put some chile and cheese in the bottom of each bowl, poured on the hot soup, and strewed the tortilla chips over it.

 

 

It was lovely. The soup base was the pure soul of exquisitely sweet corn. This is being a good year for corn here, so the soup just sang of green fields and summer. Each garnish provided its own flavor and texture contrast: the poblano a hot chile zing, the cheese a faintly sour soft curd, and the chips a lightly spicy crunch. I’m sure I’m going to make this soup again before corn season is over.

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Incidentally, the corn soup was the centerpiece of a pleasant, down-home Mexican dinner. Before it we had Kennedy’s guacamole with tortilla chips and salsa, and after it we shared two large (purchased) tamales, one of cheese and one of chicken mole, along with which I served red Mexican rice and more of the guacamole.