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The last week of winter sent us some nasty weather as a parting gift. It has been a peculiar winter hereabouts: many days’ temperature getting up into the 60s, followed by colder spells with lots of wind, then unseasonal warmth again. It had hardly snowed at all until a late nor’easter barreled toward us, threatening Manhattan with 15” or more of snow and wild blustery winds. It was definitely a day to stay home and make soup.

I remembered there were some soup recipes in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook that I’d been meaning to try for a long time, so I pulled my copy off the shelf and started looking through it. Aha: Celery Rice Soup – the very thing! Beloved Spouse is always eager for dishes involving cooked celery, and I had just bought a large fresh head of it.
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With that incentive, he was more than happy to chop all the vegetables for the soup. He began working on the four biggest stalks of celery, then moved on to a big onion and two potatoes, while I measured out ½ cup of white rice, grated ½ cup of parmigiano, and defrosted 6 cups of homemade broth and 2 tablespoons of minced parsley.
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The cooking process was simple. In a soup pot I briefly softened the onion in olive oil, stirred in the celery and potatoes to coat them with the oil, poured in the broth, and simmered everything for 20 minutes. Then I added the rice and some salt and pepper, simmered it for another 20 minutes, and stirred in the parsley. The rice had absorbed a lot of the liquid, making the soup look almost like a vegetable stew.

For lunch that day we ate big bowls of it, topped with grated parmigiano. It was a perfect consolation for a mean, snowy, sleety day: hearty, homey, and comforting, with a mild and delicate flavor of celery.
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A few cold, windy days later I turned to another recipe from the same book: Pugliese-style Zucchini-Potato Soup. Its ingredients are similar in type but even fewer in number than the previous one’s: potatoes, zucchini, and spaghetti, with condiments of garlic, olive oil, and grated parmigiano.
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The cooking too is even simpler: Bring salted water to a boil, add cut-up potatoes and a minced clove of garlic, cook 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Add cut-up zucchini and broken-up spaghetti; cook 10 more minutes, until the spaghetti is al dente. Stir in olive oil, black pepper, and grated cheese. Serve, passing more olive oil at the table.
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This minimal peasant soup was, once again, just what the weather needed. The final dressing of cheese and olive oil completed and enhanced its simple basic flavors. Beloved Spouse said it struck him as a grandmother’s soup. My only complaint was for the blandness of the out-of-season zucchini: They didn’t contribute all they should have to the mixture.

But the vernal equinox is past, Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilting toward the sun, the days are getting longer, and soon the growing season will be upon us. And if winter delivers any Parthian shots to us, I can retaliate with the rest of my two soups.
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I always thought of shrimp sandwiches as using cold, mayonnaise-based shrimp salad. Now I’ve discovered a different kind of shrimp sandwich – warm, spicy, saucy, and good! The recipe, from Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors, is called Tortas con Camarones al Ajillo, or Garlic Shrimp Tortas. One further reason I liked it was that most of the ingredients are things I keep in the kitchen or can get easily, so no special shopping was required.

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I did change a few things when I made the recipe. First, it calls for just “crusty rolls,” which could be anything: French, kaiser, ciabatta, etc. I wanted to have true Mexican torta rolls. Online research told me there are two varieties, called telera and bolillo, which seem to be identical except for the way the tops are slashed. I found a nice recipe for them on the King Arthur Flour website and baked a small batch, using the easier bolillo slash.

 

The next day I was ready to make the tortas for lunch. For two sandwiches, the recipe calls for ¾ pound of shrimp. That sounded like too much for the size of my rolls, so I used only ½ pound. I peeled them, sprinkled on salt and pepper, and let them sit while I started their sauce. (Cook’s confession: I never bother to devein shrimp unless the veins are grossly unsightly.)

I persuaded Beloved Spouse to stem, seed, and cut up two small dried de árbol chiles, a variety I like very much, while I sliced two cloves of garlic very thin. These went into a large pan along with olive oil and a bay leaf, and sauteed until the garlic began to brown.

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I added the shrimp and cooked very briefly, until they just turned opaque . . .
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. . . and removed them from the pan. Into it I poured in ¾ cup of white wine and 1½ tablespoons of lemon juice and cooked until the liquid had reduced by half. Off heat, I put the shrimp back in and left them there to soak up flavors while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.

The tortas were to receive a garnish of tomato slices and a heap of baby arugula. For several days previously I’d had some halfway-flavorful Mexican tomatoes – winter’s best option – and a big plastic box of wild arugula, both of which I’d been using. Alas, when I reopened the box this time, the arugula had gone slimy. I had to substitute shredded Boston lettuce – a much milder green.

While two split bolillos were toasting lightly, I reheated the shrimp, taking out the pieces of chile and the bay leaf, stirring in a teaspoon of chopped parsley and the grated zest of half a lemon, and dissolving two tablespoons of thinly sliced butter into the sauce for a final enrichment.

At last I could put together the tortas. The bottom half of a roll on a plate; the shrimp heaped on, the sauce poured over, plus tomato slices, lettuce, and the top half of the roll.

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Though a little messy to eat, the tortas were scrumptious. There was an almost symphonic interplay of flavors and textures – nutty sweetness of shrimp, subtle scent of garlic, spicy heat of chiles, bright acidity of wine and lemon, richness of butter, softness of tomato, and crispness of lettuce, all contained by a very tasty roll. I only regret having lost the arugula – it would have made another tangy element. Next time, for sure!

byrn-american-cakeI’ve just acquired an intriguing new cookbook, devoted entirely to cakes. Anne Byrn’s American Cake tells the story of cake making in this country from colonial days forward, illustrating changing trends and fashions in baking with well-documented classic recipes and gorgeous photography. I’ve never been much of a cake maker, relying more on pies and tarts for dessert-making occasions, but this book looked like a good opportunity to try new things.

As soon as the book arrived, Beloved Spouse – who has developed more of a sweet tooth than he had when we were young – fell on it joyfully and put in an immediate request for its Boston cream pie, a kind of cake I’d never made before and could only vaguely remember even having tasted:
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books-cake

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This picture made it look almost cloyingly rich, oozing with custard between the layers of cake and dripping with a thick chocolate glaze. I was sure the two of us wouldn’t be able to consume a whole cake that size before it went stale.

Then I had my Great Idea: Make half of it! Instead of baking two layers of cake, bake only one, slice it in half, and put the halves together with half batches of the custard and the glaze.  What simplicity! What genius!

It was easy enough to reduce the quantities of the ingredients, but it’s still an elaborate process to follow. I had to start early in the day, because the custard had to be made and chilled for at least five hours before being used.

First I whisked together milk, sugar, gelatin, and salt in a saucepan and simmered it until the sugar and gelatin were dissolved. Next I whisked together an egg yolk, cornstarch, and a little more milk, and gradually combined the two mixtures. It all went back into the saucepan, to be cooked and whisked continually until it thickened. It did, very properly. So far, so good.

I strained that mixture into a bowl, stirred in butter and vanilla, and whisked, yet again, until the custard was smooth. Covered the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing it right down onto the surface of the custard, and set it in the refrigerator.
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custard

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Then it was on to the cake. I creamed butter, sugar, and vanilla in the heavy-duty mixer, beat in an egg, then added flour, baking powder, and salt, alternately with milk, to make a smooth batter. The batter baked in a greased 8-inch round pan for about 20 minutes, until the cake was golden. Unmolded, it had to cool completely on a rack.
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cake

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I sliced the cake in half, put one piece on a plate, spread the custard filling over it, topped it with the other cake piece, and put the plate in the refrigerator while I made the glaze. That was easier to do than I expected. In a saucepan I melted semisweet chocolate, heavy cream, and a little syrup. (It should have been corn syrup but I didn’t have any and didn’t want to buy a whole bottle for one tablespoon’s worth, so I just made up a bit of simple sugar syrup.) Off heat, I added vanilla and stirred until the glaze was smooth.

The last step was to pour that glaze over the cake and let it drip artistically down the sides, as shown in the book’s photo above. That was not as easy as it sounds, as you can see from my results. There must be an art to manipulating glaze that I never learned.
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my-cake

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And if you think that looks terrible, have a peek at the cut side of the cake.
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back-side

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Not a thing of beauty, and not one I’d dare set before anyone other than ourselves. But you know what? – It was great. The textures and flavors of cake, custard, and glaze made a marvelous combination. Not as overly sweet as I’d feared it was going to be, either. I now see why Boston cream pie is such a classic American dessert.

And, when sliced and served, it was almost decent looking.
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cake-slice

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Beloved Spouse would like another.

Trinidad Doubles

No, not tennis. Last week I was in Trinidad on a birding trip, enjoying warm weather, lush tropical scenery, over 170 species of gorgeous birds . . . and one terrific culinary specialty: Doubles.

Trinidad’s favorite street food, doubles are gloriously sloppy “sandwiches” made with bara, a kind of fried bread, and channa, curried chickpeas. Roadside stands serve doubles on a sheet of greaseproof paper, to be eaten in the hand, standing up. Here’s part of our group waiting to be served (but also keeping an eye out for any passing birds).
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doubles-stand

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The choices on offer were mild, medium, or hot. I had the medium, and Beloved Spouse of course had the hot. Each doubles (singular and plural both end in “s”) cost $4 Trinidadian, which is about 65ȼ US.
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trini-doubles

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They were amazingly good! The light, puffy bread, the tender, succulent chickpeas, the savory curry spicing, and the fiery hot sauce – together all just sang and danced on the palate. I immediately knew I’d have to try making doubles for myself.

And so I did. We got home from the trip on Thursday evening. Friday morning I studied doubles recipes on the Internet and selected different parts of them to make a version that I thought would work best. That afternoon I took a walk to Kalustyan’s, my local source of nearly every exotic foodstuff under the sun, and acquired a few essentials that my pantry lacked:
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3-ingredients

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Trinidad-style curry powder, which has no hot chiles, is milder than its counterparts in other geographic regions but very aromatic from ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, and allspice, in addition to the usual turmeric, coriander, and cumin. The region’s hot sauce is a real killer, made with the devastatingly hot Scotch bonnet peppers, plus vinegar, mustard, and papayas. The yellow pea flour is not in any of the doubles recipes I found online, but a cookbook I’d looked at in Trinidad and a few people I’d talked to there had told me it’s important for doubles.

So Saturday morning I started making the bara for a lunch of doubles. Not knowing if the pea flour would need different treatment, I cautiously used it only half and half with all-purpose flour. Additional dry seasonings were turmeric, cumin, salt, and black pepper.
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bara-flour-mixture

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When those were thoroughly mixed together, I stirred in yeast, warm water, and a little sugar to make a fairly soft dough, kneaded it, and set it aside to rise.
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bara-dough

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While the dough was rising I prepared the channa. That involved softening sliced onions and minced garlic in oil; adding the curry powder, water, chickpeas (canned and rinsed), cumin, salt, and black pepper; and simmering until the chickpeas were tender, which took about half an hour.
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channa

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Finally came the tricky part: shaping and frying the bara. Here I’m afraid I didn’t do too well. The instruction was to take walnut-sized lumps of dough and flatten them out to four- or five-inch rounds. Stretching them as thin as I could without their ripping apart, I still needed twice as much dough to achieve that size.
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forming-bara-2

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One internet recipe warned that if the rounds weren’t excruciatingly thin, flat, and oily, they wouldn’t come out with the right texture. And, alas, mine didn’t. I might have had the oil too hot, too, because though fried for only eight seconds on a side, they darkened in a way that the ones in Trinidad never did; and to the extent they puffed at all, it was in the middle, not around the sides.
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bara-frying

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The good news is that, while my doubles looked nothing like the ones at that roadside stand, they tasted quite good anyway. The bara were darker, denser, and heavier, perhaps from the pea flour. And too much of the channa’s liquid had cooked off. But a few dashes of the hot sauce added the needed moisture and completed a very lively overall flavor profile.
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my-doubles

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That’s nowhere near the true Trini dish, I fear (especially since it’s on a plate, not a piece of paper), but it was an interesting culinary experiment for me. I may well do it again, trying a few changes to achieve lighter, puffier bara.

Pasta with Maine Shrimp

There were Maine shrimp in my fish market last week! They’d been gone for three years, since commercial shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Maine was closed down after a disastrous 2013 season. The moratorium is still in effect, but thanks to an increase in the amounts shrimpers may take for scientific sampling purposes – and then sell – this year, small quantities of these delicious little critters are getting to our area. Hooray!
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maine-shrimp-in-shell

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These bright red shrimps are really tiny. That’s half a pound of them, raw in their shells. Most often I just drop them in boiling water for one minute, then cool, shell, chill, and serve them with a homemade cocktail sauce. They make a lovely shrimp cocktail. This time I was going to use them in a pasta dish, so I shelled them raw. Stripped of their long heads, shells, tails, legs, feelers, and roe, they came to a mere 3½ ounces. Wish I’d bought more!
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maine-shrimp-shelled

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Even though the shrimps were going to combine with pasta, I wanted to keep everything simple: Maine shrimps should shine through their accompaniments. So I chose for the sauce of my pasta dish a basic agli’e olio (It’s not spelled that way, I know; but in this Neapolitan-American household, it’s pronounced that way), the making of which is Beloved Spouse’s specialty. So while our spaghetti was cooking, he minced some cloves of garlic, seethed them in olive oil without allowing them to color, and tossed in chopped parsley, salt, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.
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aglie-olio

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Moments before the spaghetti was done we added the shrimp to the saucepan and stirred them around until they just lost their translucence, about two minutes. All that remained to be done was drain the pasta, put it in bowls, and dress it with the shrimp and sauce.
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pasta-and-shrimp

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So simple, and so scrumptious! Delicate as Maine shrimp are, their sweetness and succulence contribute immensely to any dish they’re invited into. I hope there’ll be enough of them for me to invite into several more meals this winter, before their very short season is over.

For my next batch I’m thinking I might want to see how Maine shrimp would handle the spicy sauce of Galatoire’s Shrimp Remoulade. And if that works, maybe try giving Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison a Yankee twist by substituting Maine shrimp for crab. If there’s time enough, we shall see.

For most of my adult life I had zero interest in cooking kidneys. I enjoyed them at good French restaurants, but whenever I’d tried them at home, their urinary undertones were too distressing. Then, a few years ago I found a recipe with a technique that it claimed would solve that problem – and it did! Ever since, I’ve enjoyed an occasional dish of that recipe’s kidneys in mustard sauce.

olney-menusWith the most recent veal kidney from my butcher shop, I thought it was time to try a different approach. In Richard Olney’s The French Menu Cookbook I found a recipe that uses the same “kidney cleansing” technique. Olney’s simple Sautéed Veal Kidneys with Mushrooms is fairly similar to my previous recipe; its main differences are using cognac instead of calvados, omitting mustard from the sauce, and including mushrooms.

The hardest thing about any kidney dish is preparing the kidney itself. Unlike small, smooth, round lambs’ kidneys (delicious but very hard to find locally), a veal kidney is an agglomeration of soft meat lumps held together with a complicated internal chunk of fat and tubes. Beloved Spouse did his usual heroic job of reducing this one to manageable segments.
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horizontal-kidney

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For the cleansing technique, I melted butter in a pan; tossed the salted and peppered kidney pieces in it over high heat very briefly – just until they turned grayish on the outside; and set them up in a strainer, where they gently exuded the reddish-yellowish liquid that carries the uriny taste.
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draining

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The next thing to work on for the recipe was the mushrooms. Coincidentally, I’d just bought a small batch of fresh chanterelles, which I thought should be very compatible with the kidneys and sauce.
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few-chanterelles

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I cleaned, sliced, and sautéed them in the butter remaining in the pan, then set them aside and did the same with minced shallots. When those had softened a bit I deglazed the pan with cognac, white wine, and a little very concentrated homemade broth. The recipe doesn’t call for broth, but I did it because in the headnote Olney remarks that, among professional chefs, “meat glaze usually lends additional body and intensity to the sauce.” Sounded good to me.

At that point I returned the chanterelles to the pan, stirred in heavy cream, and cooked gently until the sauce had reduced and thickened somewhat. Then I was able to set it all aside until dinner time.
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chanterelles

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When dinner was nearly ready I folded the kidneys into the mushrooms and sauce, warmed everything through, being careful not to let the sauce boil, and served.
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kidneys-served

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It was marvelous. Everything blended beautifully, the kidneys were delicately flavorful, and the chanterelles truly loved the sauce. In fact, they were almost tastier than the kidneys. An accompaniment of small boiled potatoes and white asparagus completed a highly satisfying dish.

I know innards aren’t everyone’s first love, but properly prepared they aren’t overpowering. They have gentle flavors, different from those of the familiar muscle meats – and for me, at least, a change is always welcome. I love prime rib, but I don’t want it all the time. Kidneys, liver, brains, sweetbreads: They all have something different to contribute to the kind of diet we’re fortunate enough to be able to enjoy.

A place in my neighborhood, billed as the only 100% Paleo restaurant in the city, puts a chalkboard on the sidewalk listing daily specials. I love to walk by and envision a Neanderthal family sitting in their cave breakfasting on something like No-Yo Matcha Parfait: coconut milk, maple syrup, taro root, almond butter, matcha, banana, and grain-free granola. Where in the world could a group of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers have collected that combination of foodstuffs?!

Such absurdities make it impossible for me to take the Paleo diet seriously. While I’m quite happy to eat meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, there’s no way I’d give up all dairy products, grains, bread, pasta, sugar, salt, and coffee. (Not to mention wine.) But leaving aside the pros, cons, and controversies of the Paleo approach, it can be fun on occasion to eat something “primordial” – and there’s nothing more primordial than roasted marrow bones.

Here’s the batch that we had one recent evening:

raw-bones

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They’re perfectly easy to prepare: Place the bones in a roasting pan with the wider side of the marrow openings up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put the pan in a 450° oven until the marrow softens and begins to ooze out – about 15 minutes. Serve. Except for the salt and pepper, any Paleolithic cook could have done it.

roasted-bones

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It’s hard to overstate how elementally satisfying the succulence of marrow is at the end of a grey, cold, winter day. However, I destroyed the Paleo purity of the dish by having a loaf of crusty ciabatta bread as its accompaniment.

bread-loaf

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There’s nothing roasted marrow likes better than to be scooped out and spread on a slice of warm toast, there to be blissfully devoured.
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plate-of-bones

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And one more post-Paleolithic touch: Marrow loves a good, soft, round red wine. So do I.

bone-tower