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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. 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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screen shot

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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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When I first noticed a recipe for clams and white beans in Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations, I thought it an improbable combination. As I read on, skepticism turned to interest, because of the intriguing mix of seasonings: paprika, chili pepper flakes, saffron, mint, parsley, garlic, onions, white wine. I thought both beans and clams would like those flavors, so maybe together they’d be even better. And so they were.

???????????????????????????????But first, I had to take exception to a few things in the recipe. To serve four, Goldstein calls for three dozen small clams and a pound of dried white beans. To me, that’s stingy on the clams and way too heavy on the beans. That amount of beans would at least triple in the soaking and expand even more in the cooking, so each serving would be about two cups of beans. No doubt some people would like that many beans at a sitting, but not Tom and I. On the other hand, we can certainly enjoy more than nine little clams apiece.

For the two of us I used ¼ pound of marrow beans (a large, hard-to-find favorite variety), putting them to soak the night before. The next day, I went out for the clams. Now, clams come in several varieties, and “small” is a relative term. The fish counter at Citarella had littlenecks from local waters, Manila clams from Seattle, and cockles from New Zealand. The cockles were about midsize between the other two and gorgeously fresh-looking. I bought two dozen of them.

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From that point, I followed Goldstein’s recipe – which, by the way, is a version of Fabes con Almejas, a specialty of Spain’s Asturias region – just halving the remaining ingredients. The beans were simmered in water with chopped onion and garlic, half a bay leaf, and a teaspoon of salt until fully done. (She’s of the salt-at-the-beginning school of bean cooking; I’m usually not, but I did it her way this time, with no ill effects.)

In the evening I scrubbed the clams and proceeded to cook. In a broad, shallow pan I softened chopped onions in olive oil; stirred in minced garlic, crushed saffron, dried crushed red pepper, and sweet Hungarian paprika. After two minutes of simmering, I added white wine and the clams, covered the pan, and cooked briskly until the clams opened, shaking the pan from time to time. Meanwhile, I was reheating the beans so I could add them to the clams and let them get acquainted for a few minutes over low heat. When combined, they looked happy to meet each other. Finally, I topped them with chopped mint and parsley.

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This was an excellent dish. All the flavors blended beautifully, and a good crackling of black pepper on the plate provided a final grace note. I think it would make a particularly interesting first course for a seafood dinner. But I’d strongly advise against using the proportion of beans in Goldstein’s recipe: That would surely overwhelm the bright brininess of the clams.

So there was this panettone on a shelf in my pantry, casting reproachful looks at me whenever I reached in for something. With all the overeating we’d been doing during the holidays, we’d just never gotten around to the panettone. Though it has great keeping qualities, it doesn’t last forever: I had to do something with it. Since a whole panettone is a lot for just two people to work their way through, I needed a recipe that would use a substantial amount of it at once. Aha! Bread pudding!

My husband loves bread pudding, and my big recipe binder has clippings with several fancy versions – apple calvados, bourbon raisin, chocolate hazelnut brioche, gianduja and praline paste – but what I mostly like to make is a simple, scalable recipe that I’ve developed for myself. My large version of it wants four cups of lightly staled bread cubes, and I saw no reason why they couldn’t be panettone.

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I chunked up half the loaf (froze the other half; it’ll become a sweet Easter bread), put it in a big bowl, and poured over it two cups of scalded milk in which I’d dissolved two tablespoons of butter and ¼ cup of sugar. (That was less butter and sugar than usual, because the bread was so rich and sweet.) Then I stirred in two eggs beaten with a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of vanilla. The very soft panettone wouldn’t absorb enough of the liquid, so I smushed in two cut-up slices of my white bread, crusts and all, to stiffen the mix.

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Finally, my recipe calls for ½ to 1 cup of cut-up fruit, for which I usually use apples, peaches or raisins. The panettone already had quite a few raisins in it, so all I added was a chopped banana. All that chunky mush went into my largest souffle dish and baked in a 350° oven for about an hour.

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Lest you think that Tom and I were planning to eat this huge pudding all by ourselves, I hasten to say I was making it in advance for a small dinner party. Once the dish was cool, I covered it and set it on a cold window sill, where it remained, contentedly, until it was time to warm it in the oven the next day.

Somewhat conscience-stricken to be offering such a plain, homely dessert to guests, good as I knew it was going to be, I made a crème anglaise to serve with it. That worked well; everyone enjoyed it very much. Half our food-savvy guests admitted to a fondness for bread pudding, and one even confessed to loving panettone.

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And Tom and I enjoyed the leftovers for several days thereafter. Bread pudding is a wonderfully resilient creature.

Oxtail Stew

Earlier this week, as soon as predictions began for a “crippling and potentially historic blizzard,” “one of the largest in the history of New York City,” with near-hurricane-force winds and up to three feet of snow, I made my emergency preparations: (1) Rummage in the freezer for hearty, rib-sticking meats. (2) Look up recipes that need the oven going for a long time.

T-L BritishThe first good prospect my freezer produced was oxtails: a batch of small, tail-tip pieces that I hadn’t used for my last dish of coda alla vaccinara. My cookbook research came up with an attractive recipe for oxtail stew in the Cooking of the British Isles volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. The day the snow started, I made the dish.

It turned out not to be what I would call a stew at all; rather an oven braise. It starts conventionally, with salting, peppering, flouring, and browning the pieces of oxtail in a skillet with lard and transferring them to a Dutch oven. But the good array of vegetables – carrot, onion, celery, and turnip – aren’t added in chunks, as is usually the case. I had to coarsely chop them and cook them all together for 10 minutes in the same skillet that had browned the meat.

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Once softened and lightly browned, the veg went into the Dutch oven on top of the oxtails, along with a cup of stock, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley. I brought the pot to a simmer on the stove, covered it tightly, and put it in the oven at 325° for 2½ hours. My oven tends to run hot, so I checked it a few times and indeed had to stir in about a cup of water to keep the sauce from thickening too much. But that was all the tending it needed.

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The recipe said to skim the fat before serving, but my little oxtails didn’t have much to begin with, and there was really none left at the end. I had feared that the vegetables, small as they were, would have turned to mush after that long cooking, but no, they were still biteworthy. As was the beautifully tender meat. A successful, simple new winter recipe, to be enjoyed even without the impetus of a blizzard. (Which, by the way, largely bypassed NYC. We had only 4-5 inches of snow in my neighborhood.)

 

Roman Rosette Rolls

A great pleasure of hotel breakfasts in Rome are the invariably offered rosette – firm, crusty, delicious rolls that you break open and slather with butter and jam. I’ve often wanted to make them at home, but I thought it’d be impossible, because – in addition to having a distinctive shape, taste, and texture – rosette are almost completely hollow. I couldn’t imagine how a plain flour and water yeast dough was made to puff up in the oven like popovers.

I’d never seen them in the US until, at a recent lunch at restaurant SD 26 in Manhattan, the bread service included perfect, authentic rosette. When the headwaiter stopped by our table I asked if they were brought in from Italy and he said no, they were made here. I mentioned my wonder at how they were made, and in a little while he came back with some information from the chef: three risings of the dough, very hot oven, press the rosette shape into the rolls with an apple cutter. I was inspired to try it.

A Google search provided a lot of information about making rosette, all the sites admitting that it’s very hard to get the rolls hollow. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I bookmarked a fully illustrated recipe on a website called VivaLaFocaccia and got ready to work.

Please note: The rest of this post is going to be about a lot of baking technicalities, possibly of interest mainly to people who like to make bread. Skip it if the prospect doesn’t appeal to you. (Or just scroll down to see whether I succeeded.)

First I had to get the right kind of flour. The recipe calls for Italian 00 flour, specifying one with 12% gluten.  That’s a protein content higher than most all-purpose flours, lower than most bread flours. It’s not hard to find 00 flour in my neighborhood, but no brand lists its gluten content. I chose one whose Nutrition Facts label gave the highest protein content per serving.

???????????????????????????????A day in advance I made the initial dough, briefly kneading together 2⅔ cups of flour, 6 ounces of water, and a scant ½ teaspoon of yeast. The recipe warns that this will be a tough dough, “not very refined.” I’ll say! It came out looking like a head of cauliflower. I left it to sit at room temperature for 20 hours.

The next morning, the dough had softened quite a bit, though it hadn’t expanded much. I proceeded with the recipe. Finishing the dough involved just another 3 tablespoons of flour, a scant 2 ounces of water, ¾ teaspoon of salt, and a scant ½ teaspoon of sugar – no more yeast. It was to be kneaded on the heavy-duty mixer for 6 minutes at the lowest speed before adding salt, then, with salt, 7 minutes at the next lowest speed. Actually, I had to knead it much longer, because at first my dough just slopped around in the slush at the bottom of the mixing bowl, refusing to absorb the water or gather on the dough hook. I don’t know why that happened.

Eventually it did turn into a smooth, elastic dough, very lively looking. In fact, it never needed a speck more flour during all the many manipulations that followed. And they were many: From start to finish, I spent most of four hours making these rosette. Obviously, you undertake something like this only if you love the process or love the result or both – or if you are, as Tom sometimes maintains I am, latently masochistic.

I shaped the dough into a ball, covered it and let it sit for 10 minutes; flattened it with a rolling pin, folded it in 4 parts, covered again and let it sit 15 minutes; and did the flattening, folding, and resting twice more. To my surprise, the dough rose noticeably during each of those short rests. I shaped the dough into a ball again, brushed it with olive oil, covered it with plastic wrap and a towel, and let it sit for 30 minutes. Again it rose well. (BTW, I didn’t take photos of all these stages; the dough looked just like the pictures on the website.)

At last it was time to divide the dough into eight pieces and shape them into balls. There was a special technique for that (again, see the website photos if you’re interested), apparently intended to create a potential air cavity in the center of each roll, though I have to admit it didn’t do much for mine.  When the smooth balls had been covered and let rise for 30 minutes, it was time to give them their rosette shape.

I’d bought an apple corer just for this job. I pressed it into each ball (­“gently but not too much,” the recipe said, which wasn’t entirely helpful). I tried to make cuts that looked about as deep as the recipe’s pictured ones. Here are mine:

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I turned the rolls upside down and covered them again. At last it was time to preheat the oven to 500°, while the rosette rose once more, for an hour. This time they didn’t rise very much, which worried me somewhat. Had all that manipulation with the rolling pin, and all those rising times, worn out the yeast? Also, my kitchen timer had chosen this day to go wonky on me, so several of those short rises were actually longer than they should have been. Worry worry worry.

Resigned to my fate, whatever it might be, I laid a piece of parchment on my pizza peel, placed the rolls on it right-side up, and dusted them with flour as directed. I poured boiling water into a shallow pan in the oven on the shelf beneath the one holding my baking steel and transferred the loaded parchment to the steel. I also sprayed water into the oven every minute for the first 10. Slowly, slowly, the rosette rose.

After 15 minutes I turned the oven down to 400°. The rosette should have been done in another 10 minutes, according to the recipe, but they hadn’t browned at all in that time, so I kicked the oven back up. It took almost 15 minutes more to get the rosette well browned.

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They were nicely puffed, very light in the hand. I could see that I hadn’t made the cuts deep enough to get the proper appearance of rosettes of flower petals, but there was the suggestion of them, anyway. And I really had hopes that they’d prove to be hollow.

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Alas, no. There was just a small cavity in the middle of each roll, with a lot of soft crumb all around. However, they did come out with exactly the right Roman flavor and crustiness. Absolutely delicious with sweet butter and homemade strawberry jam. So, despite the amount of time it takes, I’ll probably bake rosette again some day. Maybe I’ll figure out how to get them hollow: I have a few theories . . .

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