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A crab cake is a lovesome thing, God wot. A good crab cake, that is – which is not as easy to find as one would hope. Too many recipes I’ve tried, and too many crab cakes I’ve had in restaurants, have been tarted up with fillers: dry breadcrumbs, green pepper, onion, celery, mayonnaise, Worcestershire, horseradish. To my mind, a crab cake should taste purely of crab, with any other ingredients merely unobtrusive binders to hold the cake together in the frying. This week I found my ideal crab cake.

???????????????????????????????The recipe is in The Pleasures of Seafood by Rima and Richard Collin. It’s the simplest version I’ve ever seen, the best I’ve ever made, and a serious contender for the best I’ve ever eaten, even years ago in Baltimore, the spiritual home of the Maryland crab cake. In addition to fresh lump crabmeat, all that goes into the cakes are egg, dry mustard, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and a little fresh white bread, dampened in milk, squeezed almost dry, and crumbled.

Here’s what the mixture looks like, ready to be shaped into cakes.

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The recipe says to mold the cakes gently, to keep them light and airy. I didn’t think that was going to work, because the mixture didn’t seem sticky enough to hold together without squeezing, but I gave it a try, and sure enough I achieved consistent cakes. To be on the safe side, I put them in the refrigerator for a while to firm them up a bit.

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Now, to cook them. Some crab cake recipes call for deep frying, while others allow shallow frying. In the past I’ve gone with shallow, just for convenience. But the Collins insist on deep, and in trusting them I made a discovery that’s going to be very useful for future frying at home. (Which is great, because frying, when done right, makes good food taste even better. That’s why people love it so much, despite anything nutritionists say to its detriment.) You see, what I usually use is a large DeLonghi electric deep fryer.

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It fries food quite well, but it has drawbacks. It has to be filled with a whole gallon of oil. The time and temperature gauges are annoyingly complex. It’s messy to empty and difficult to clean, so since I don’t fry very often, I tend to leave oil in it for weeks, even months, at a time. And once a batch of oil has been used for seafood, it’s too strongly fish-flavored to be good for frying milder foods like potatoes or zucchini. For all these reasons, I was reluctant to fire up the big machine for my four little crab cakes.

What I needed was a pot small enough to require a lot less oil, with high enough sides to provide a good quantity of oil and still deep enough to prevent overflow from oil bubbling up when the food goes in. And, by golly, I found one – back in a corner of my own pots-and-pans cabinet.

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This chunky little fellow is a two-quart “hammered” cast aluminum Dutch oven – practically an antique. The maker, Silver Seal, stopped issuing pots under this name in 1938, the year my parents were married. Probably a wedding gift then, it got constant use all through my mother’s life. Since I inherited it from her, years ago, I’ve rarely used it, keeping it mainly for sentimental reasons. But now I realized it’s perfect for a small quantity of frying.

Three cups of oil filled it just half way, leaving plenty of headroom to contain any oil bubbling up around my crab cakes. And it cooked them beautifully. Here’s a sample:

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That’s a mustard-Worcestershire sauce on the left side of the plate and tartare sauce on the right. Both went well with the crab, the mustard/Worcestershire mixture a little better – which figures, because those two are the traditional condiments for crab cakes in Baltimore. The crab itself was fabulous. A good thing it was, too, since the half-pound of fresh lump crabmeat that went into those four little cakes cost $20. But once we’d tasted them, we felt that even at $5 apiece, they were well worth it. Taste beats economics every time.

And I’m so glad to have discovered this small-batch frying system. It worked perfectly from start to finish. The heavy aluminum pot was very responsive to temperature regulation on the stove burner. When the frying was done I just stored the oil in a quart jar for reuse. The pot cleaned up in no time. Sometimes old ways really are best!

Greenwich Village CookbookThe Greenwich Village Cookbook is a repository of local culinary and cultural history. Published in 1969, it has nearly 400 recipes from 75 restaurants and coffeehouses then active in the Village, with affectionate profiles of each. Most are long gone now, but several are still in business, though the recipes from those days reflect cooking styles of half a century ago. My friends Frank and Vickie gave me a copy of the book recently, and last weekend I made them a dinner from it.

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We started with The Coach House’s Black Bean Soup Madeira. Before it closed in 1993, the Coach House had been an immensely prestigious (also elegant and expensive) restaurant on Waverley Place for over 40 years, and black bean soup was one of its signature dishes.

This was one of the most time-consuming soups I’ve ever made. I started by cooking black beans in plain water for 1½ hours. At the end of that time, I added a sauté of chopped celery, onion, and parsley lightly thickened with flour; a whole smoked pork knuckle, a hillock of chopped leeks, a bay leaf, salt, and pepper. All that simmered together for 3 hours, after which I discarded the pork knuckle and bay leaf and pureed the soup. Next was to add Madeira (I didn’t happen to have any, so I used an oloroso sherry), reheat the soup, stir in chopped hard-boiled egg, and – finally – float a thin slice of lemon on top of each bowlful.

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It was a terrific soup – subtly spicy, lush and filling.  It made very clear why the Coach House had stood so long as a bastion of fine American cooking.

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Our main course was Chicken al Charro. El Charro Español is one of the surviving restaurants from those days: It still serves traditional Spanish food in its modest basement premises on Charles Street. Tom and I used to eat there in the early ’70s, and I often ordered its chicken, so when I found the recipe in the cookbook I knew I had to try to reproduce it.

Unlike the soup, this was a fairly simple dish to make. I cut up a nice plump chicken, rubbed the pieces with a paste of crushed garlic, ground cumin, paprika, salt, and pepper, and dredged them with flour. I softened a sliced onion in olive oil, added the chicken pieces, browned them briskly, then lowered the heat, covered the pan, and let them cook until tender. Just before serving I sprinkled on some red wine and additional crushed garlic. That, along with the cooking juices in the pan, made a tiny sauce to moisten the chicken pieces.

Chicken al Charro

This was a good, lively dish. It was important to have a really flavorful chicken; I think a bland supermarket bird would’ve been overwhelmed by the spicing. The final garlic addition was fairly pungent, but it was balanced by the other seasonings. My dish didn’t fully equal my recollection of the restaurant’s long-ago version – but the warm glow of memory and nostaglia has probably gilded that particular lily. I could check it out, though: Pollo al Charro is still on the menu.

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For a small fruit dessert, I chose Oranges à l’Arabe, attributed to Casey’s, a long-defunct down-home French-New Orleans-jazz restaurant on West 10th Street. There didn’t seem to be anything very Arabian about the recipe, but it sounded attractive. I peeled four oranges, made slivers of some of the peel, and cooked the slivers in sugar syrup for 30 minutes. When the syrup was cool I stirred in dry curaçao, poured it over the sliced oranges, and put the dish in the refrigerator until needed.

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It was very simple and very refreshing – a pleasant finish for a pleasant meal in the style of the Greenwich Village of our youth.

Most of the time, I cook vegetables very plainly. Baked, boiled, or steamed, they’re the supporting cast of the meal, not the stars. But I have occasional urges to do something more elaborate with them. It’s not a bountiful time of year for vegetables, of course, but I thought I’d see what I could do with new recipes for some out-of-season varieties.

VillasI turned to James Villas’s Country Cooking, which does a lot with vegetables in its mostly buffet-style menus for entertaining. The book is organized seasonally, so I turned to its “cold-weather” lunch and dinner sections. Here are three dishes I tried.

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Gratin of Leeks and Turnips

I think of white turnips as a spring vegetable, but they’re in the stores year-round now. Though not as fresh and crisp as they should be, the ones I could get worked well enough in this recipe.

The first step was to slice both vegetables into rounds: one-eighth inch for the peeled turnips, one-quarter inch for the leeks. The turnips got sauteed in butter for a minute on each side and removed to a plate; the leeks sauteed for a minute, on one side only.

Then I arranged both vegetables in alternate layers in a cast-iron pan, drizzling melted butter on each one and seasoning with salt, pepper, and oregano. The pan, covered, went into a 425° oven for about an hour. The idea was to press down on the vegetables a few times to firm them into a cake and, at the end, unmold it onto a plate. Making only a quarter of the recipe, I achieved only two layers, which didn’t hold together despite pressing, so I served them straight from the pan.

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As it was, I cooked them a little too long, though those blackened edges didn’t taste too bad. Overall, it was an excellent dish: I wouldn’t have thought those two vegetables could enhance each other as much as they did. The recipe is definitely a keeper, and I look forward to making it again when fresher turnips are available.

The next two recipes were not as successful.

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Zucchini and Peppers Vinaigrette

This is basically a cooked vegetable salad. The ingredients were promising, but I found the handling of the zucchini strange. To begin with, they were to be cut into shortish, half-inch planks – which is a clumsy shape. The red bell peppers were to be cut more normally into quarter-inch strips, and onion and garlic chopped.

The recipe then said to saute all the vegetables together in butter, stirring constantly, for two minutes, until barely soft. Well, the zucchini hadn’t been tender, fresh ones to start with, and I knew that they wouldn’t soften in that little time. So I’d sliced them thinner and cooked them somewhat longer, but they were still hard as – well, planks.

Everything then was to go into a shallow serving dish, to be tossed with a mustardy vinaigrette and steeped for an hour. I think the marination was supposed to further “cook” the vegetables, as in a seviche, but it couldn’t do much for the zucchini; they remained extremely crunchy. The red peppers probably wouldn’t have softened much either, but these were some that I’d roasted and frozen back in the fall and defrosted for this dish, so they’d had a useful head start.

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Finally, I was dubious about the vinaigrette proportions. The recipe wanted only twice as much olive oil as wine vinegar, which is very heavy on the vinegar. I did it, however, and I guess the butter from the sauteeing counteracted the acidity, because the finished dish wasn’t overly sharp. It was a decent preparation, but not exciting. Not one I’m likely to make again unless I’m inundated with farm-fresh zucchini and peppers next summer – in which case I’m more likely to just sauté both in olive oil and be very happy.

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Baked Eggplant with Parsley, Onion, and Tomato

I used this recipe as a concept rather than a blueprint. It was impossible to follow exactly because of some irritating vagueness in the ingredient list. The first item was two eggplants, to be sliced in half-inch rounds. Since eggplants can range in size from plums to cantaloupes, it was anybody’s guess what quantity Villas wanted. He did give quantities for the parsley, onions, and “Italian plum tomatoes” – one cup of the latter. I took that phrase to mean canned tomatoes, since fresh ones are rarely measured by cups, but nothing was said about slicing, chopping, or pureeing them.

Well, those are all good flavors, so I picked up a one-pound eggplant and gave the dish a try, using my judgment for all the other quantities. I arranged half the eggplant slices (salted, rinsed, and dried) in one layer in a baking dish and sprinkled on a lot of parsley. I laid on sliced onions, roughly sliced tomatoes, minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and more parsley. The other half of the eggplant slices went on top, along with a generous sloshing of olive oil.

I covered the dish and put it in a very low oven (275°) for three hours – an extraordinarily long time. Then it had to be let cool completely and be served at room temperature – another strange thing for a wintertime dish.

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How did it taste? Well, edible is the best I can say of it. The texture was predictably mushy; none of those normally very compatible ingredients did anything to improve the others; and the eggplant didn’t respond too well to being served cold: It rarely does, in my opinion.

So, the score stands at one very pleasant dish and two mild disappointments. Guess I’d better stick with winter vegetables for a while longer.

At this late stage of my culinary life I should know better than to trust cookbooks’ food photography. Mostly I do know better, since the food I prepare is meant to be eaten – not painted, primped, polished, and photoshopped into unrealistic glamour. But once in a while the sheer gall of professional food styling still really annoys me.

???????????????????????????????Here’s the current case in point. The other day I felt like making a loaf of tea bread: that is, a quick bread (raised with baking powder rather than yeast), moist, mildly sweet, often with fruit, nuts, or both. These are especially nice for breakfast or an afternoon pick-me-up in cold winter weather. Browsing in my cookbooks, I came across this attractive picture of a “loaf of golden-hued banana bread” in the Breads volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series.

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The recipe’s procedure was typical and straightforward: Cream butter and sugar; beat in an egg. Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg. Mash two bananas with vanilla extract. Add the dry ingredients and the banana alternately to the butter-sugar-egg batter. Stir in raisins and pecans. Bake in a greased loaf pan.

I was making the bread on the spur of the moment, so I omitted the nuts (which I didn’t have on hand), substituting some dried cranberries along with the raisins. Also, I cut the amount of sugar in half. It made a nice loaf: plenty sweet enough for my taste, good when just warm out of the oven and equally good toasted, with or without butter, on several subsequent days. But, even aside from the difference in shape, it didn’t look anything like that lush, golden picture in the book.

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Nor could it possibly have, given the recipe’s ingredients. White flour. White sugar. Pale yellow banana. No way a quarter cup of chopped pecans, had I used them, could have tinted the entire crumb. So, was the color of the book’s bread due to the magic of chemistry – e.g., FDC Yellow #6 (a dye permitted in the US but banned or restricted in foods by several European countries)? Or something else noxious, like iodine, since nobody was going to actually eat that loaf? Or was it the magic of technology – i.e., photo editing software? I don’t know, but I wish they wouldn’t do it.

This isn’t one of my regular posts, just a tiny fun thing that I can’t resist sharing.

While watching the TV show “Madam Secretary” last night, I caught a momentary glimpse of my cookbook The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen on the screen. I thought I must’ve imagined it, but today I found a video of the episode online, and there it was! Here are two screen shots I took of it.

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TV screen shot

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Since the scene was an FBI search through a suspect’s home, maybe it was just as well that the book wasn’t visible for more than a few seconds – I wouldn’t want to incur guilt by association!

 

 

 

 

There’s a back story to today’s recipe. Because twice I had had steaks sent to a distant friend via the Kansas City Steak Company, I was invited to participate in a company focus group. I told the sponsors that I myself had never even tasted their products, but that was no obstacle. (I suspect that was because Manhattan residents hardly need to buy mail-order meats, so focus-group candidates aren’t easy to find hereabouts.) For my participation I received a gift certificate for company products, which I used to buy four 18-ounce USDA Prime porterhouse steaks.

When they arrived, we were not thrilled with their appearance: well marbled, but pinkishly pale and barely an inch thick.

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We tried the first two simply broiled, and found them nowhere near as good as the porterhouses we get from our own butcher, Ottomanelli & Sons. The mail-order steaks were extremely tender but just didn’t have much flavor. We like our beef beefy; these were a bit anemic. To help the remaining two, I went looking for preparations with enough strong flavors to make up for the flavor deficiencies of the meat.

???????????????????????????????I’ve had good results with spicy dishes from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen so I started there. Its recipe for Seared Skirt Steak with Chipotle and Garlic was exactly what I needed. Bayless OKs using other kinds of steaks, and there was a can of chipotles in adobo in my freezer. I got to work, as usual reducing the recipe quantities to serve only two.

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To start, you have to make his Essential Roasted Tomatillo-Chipotle Salsa, which I remembered liking when I’d made it once before. It involves roasting garlic cloves in a heavy pan, roasting tomatillos under the broiler, and taking the chipotles out of their sauce.

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That done, I pureed the tomatillos, chipotles, and one clove of the garlic, adding a little salt and a speck of sugar. The salsa looked and smelled very appetizing, all by itself.

Meanwhile, Tom had boned the steak for me, producing a filet and a contrafilet, which I seared quickly in lard and removed to a plate.

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In the same pan I browned thinly sliced onion and stirred in the salsa, along with ground cumin, black pepper, and the remaining garlic cloves. After a few minutes of simmering I added broth and cooked a little longer. Back in went the steak, which just needed heating through; and with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro I served it right from the pan.

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Incidentally, Bayless recommends using a cast-iron skillet for this dish, but I didn’t. I can’t bring myself to cook anything containing liquid in cast iron pans, because it destroys the seasoning. I used a nonstick pan.

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The recipe did exactly what I hoped it would for the steak. The strong, bright flavors of the sauce were a perfect supplement to the meekness of the meat. It was an unexpectedly subtle sauce too: The chipotle smokiness was not overpowering, and there was a pleasant sweet-sour tang from the tomatillos. The sauce went as well on plain rice as on the steak, and we wished there had been more of it. Altogether, it proved a very satisfactory way of livening up an otherwise unimpressive piece of beef.

I think I know what the fate of the last of my mail-order steaks is going to be.

Sun-Dried Tomato Dishes

Are sun-dried tomatoes back in fashion? I never got into the craze for them that there was in the 70s, and since then I’d never used them in my own cooking or noticed them at dinner parties or on restaurant menus before last month. But twice recently I encountered sun-dried tomatoes at dinners, and both were good enough to induce me to make the dishes for myself.

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The first occasion was at the home of my friends Betty and Livio. With the aperitifs, there was a plate of canapés made from tiny taralli, each topped with a dab of mascarpone and a sun-dried cherry tomato. They made a good savory combination. Afterward, I asked Betty about them. She told me Livio made them, using taralli from Buon Italia, here in the Chelsea market, and dried pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – from Sicily, which he’d softened in olive oil. Important to use those little tomatoes, she said, rather than the more common big ones.

I went off to the market and was able to get all three ingredients there ­– mascarpone, taralli flavored with fennel, and imported sun-dried cherry tomatoes. I duly set up some of the pomodorini in olive oil for a few days and made the canapés for my next dinner party. No complications: just simple stacking of three good ingredients. They were very tasty tidbits; everyone liked them.

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My next encounter with sun-dried tomatoes was in a restaurant, where the pasta of the day was maccheroncini dressed with sun-dried tomato pesto, pancetta, and pistachios. It was a lively, interestingly different sauce. I had more pomodorini already softened in olive oil, and I always have pancetta, so all I had to acquire for this experiment were the pistachios.

To make the pesto I pureed about 5 ounces of the softened pomodorini with ¼ cup of canned Italian-style peeled tomatoes in a blender. I seasoned the paste with grated parmigiano, salt, freshly ground pepper, and a tiny pinch of sugar. Separately I minced ¾ ounce of pancetta and crisped it in a skillet with a little olive oil, then skinned and minced 24 pistachios.

For the pasta I had in the freezer some small tortellini that it was time to use, so I cooked enough for two portions. I tossed them with pesto (they needed less than half of it), all the pancetta and pistachios, and a scoop of the pasta cooking water to loosen the sauce a little.

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That made quite a rich dish, which appreciated generous grindings of black pepper on the plates.

If I make it again, the only thing I’d change is to grind the pistachios rather than chop them. Though small, the nuggets were a little too intrusive in the mouth-feel of the sauce.

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There was a good deal of the pesto still left after that meal, but I wasn’t worried about its fate. Tom is an ingenious contriver of good things to eat from whatever he finds in the kitchen. This evening, he quickly defrosted a paratha in a skillet (we always keep these Indian flatbreads around for simple dinner appetizers), spread it with pesto, topped it with chopped olives, and baked it in the toaster oven. Voilà – a multicultural mock pizza!  The pesto loved the olives, and we enjoyed both.

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