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Goan Avocado Salad

Avocados are an extraordinary fruit. Highly caloric – an average-sized Hass avocado runs about 250 calories, 80% of which are from fat – but also chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, and the fat is mostly unsaturated. I love avocados, but I’d never made them a regular part of my diet: The only way I prepare them is as guacamole, for Mexican-style meals.

With guacamole vaguely in mind, I picked up a big avocado recently. It sat in my fruit bowl for several days until it fully ripened, and when it was ready I realized I actually wasn’t in the mood for anything Mexican. It was time to try something else with the avocado, and I soon decided what it was to be. In my big recipe binder was an item I’d cut out of a magazine years earlier – a recipe for Floyd Cardoz’s Goan Avocado Salad.

Cardoz was then the owner-chef of Tabla, one of the early restaurants in the Danny Meyer group. Probably thousands of people, including myself, still regret the loss of Tabla and its Bread Bar, which introduced New York to a style of Indian cooking that it had never seen before. The aromas that met you when you entered Tabla were a revelation in themselves.  One of the best loved dishes there was this avocado salad.

The recipe’s preparation is very easy. The avocado, cut in half-inch pieces, is dressed – from left to right in the photo below – with olive oil, onion, tomato, cilantro, cumin, cayenne, and sugar.
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You gently mix everything together in a bowl, press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface to keep the avocado from discoloring, and put the bowl in the refrigerator for two to three hours.
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The recipe calls for serving the salad with chips made from naan, the Indian flatbread. I substituted the pitas I had on hand, cut into triangles and toasted lightly, which could be used either to scoop up the salad or to nibble on the side.
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The salad was excellent. After all this time I can’t recall if it resembled the version served at Tabla, but it was fine in its own right. Though it shares many ingredients with guacamole – avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro – the proportions are different, and the cumin and cayenne spicing, rather than fresh hot chile, give it a whole different character. Also, since the avocado is chunked rather than mashed, the mouthfeel of the dish is quite different from guacamole. It’s pleasant to eat with a fork or spoon, not just as a dip for chips. The toasted pita, by the way, went perfectly well with it.

 A bundle of boneless pork chunks discovered in my freezer this week sent me browsing through cookbooks for a recipe to make with it. A dish we always enjoy is pork long cooked in tomato sauce for pasta, but I wanted something different for a change.

When it’s the unusual I’m looking for, I often turn to Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations, a book whose gonzo recipes I’ve written about several times before, making them with various degrees of success; e.g., here and here.

The Hirino me Selino Avgolemono recipe I found there this time – in English, a Greek pork and celery stew – filled the bill for me: I know almost nothing about Greek cooking. The recipe looked straightforward, and I thought the sauce with the avgolemono mixture of egg yolk and lemon juice would be an intriguing taste experience.  And so it was.
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I gathered my ingredients and went to work.

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First was browning the small-cut pieces of pork in olive oil; quickly over high heat, as instructed. Next I took the meat out of the pan and put in the chopped onions. These were to cook 8 to 10 minutes – which, if I’d left the pan over high heat, would have incinerated them. I’ve found Goldstein’s recipes often sloppy about such details. I turned the gas way down and cooked the onions gently.
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The pork then rejoined the onions, along with half a cup of white wine and a cup of water. The recipe also didn’t say to deglaze the pan, but it certainly needed deglazing, so I did – then covered and simmered it for 35 minutes. At that point I added the celery.
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After about 20 more minutes of simmering, both pork and celery were tender. I removed them to a warm platter and quickly reduced the remaining liquid in the pan. Meanwhile I’d beaten an egg yolk with two tablespoons of lemon juice. Into that I stirred small spoonsful of the pan juices to keep the egg from coagulating when it hit the heat, then added the egg-and-lemon mixture to the pan along with some salt and pepper, and poured the finished sauce over the platter of pork and celery.

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It was a good dinner dish – very interesting in the combination of the smooth, sharp avgolemono sauce, the sweet pork, and the astringent celery. It was a bit reminiscent of what in my youth used to be called fricassee, usually made with chicken. I don’t know whether this recipe is an authentic version of the Greek dish (some of Goldstein’s ethnic creations are very idiosyncratic), but it was quite enjoyable.

Oh, and I’ll add that I preceded the stew with an appetizer of my only prior Greek culinary accomplishment: a bowl of homemade tzatziki, to be scooped up with triangles of toasted pita bread.

It’s high season for peas in my Greenmarket, and I’ve been buying them as fast as I can.

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I should mention that for me “peas” means shelling peas, or English peas: My household has no interest in sugar snaps. Standing together at the kitchen counter shelling peas is a pleasant summer tradition for Beloved Spouse and me.

I used to buy peas in quantity, blanch them and freeze them for year-long use, but they always came out tasting like commercially frozen peas, not the tender-crisp sweet vegetable that truly fresh ones are. Now I buy only enough for one or two days’ dinners at a time, so they can be eaten quickly, before the sugars turn to starch.

There’s nothing wrong with plain boiled peas, but when I feel a little more ambitious I turn to Julia Child’s pea recipes in volume 1 of Mastering. The first three are simple enough, and each is designed for peas of a certain quality: very young, sweet, and tender; large but still tender and fresh; and large, mature, end-of-season. The fourth recipe, Petits Pois Frais à la Française, is far more elaborate. Julia calls it “the glory of pea cookery.”

Essentially it’s peas braised with lettuce and onions, in a very particular way. I’ve never gone through the entire procedure, but this season I successfully adapted the recipe for faster, easy preparation. Here are the components for two portions, using one cup of shelled peas:

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The first simplification was the lettuce. Julia calls for quartered heads of Boston lettuce, wound around with string to keep them in shape during the cooking. As you see, I simply shredded leaves of fresh Greenmarket leaf lettuces.

Second was the onions. Julia wants one-inch green onion bulbs or small white onions parboiled for five minutes. I had a larger onion – so fresh it didn’t need peeling – so I quartered it and gave it the parboiling.

The cooking began in Julia’s manner. I brought butter, a little water, sugar, salt, and pepper to a boil in a pot, put in the peas, and stirred them around. Then, instead of burying a bunch of fresh parsley stems tied together with string in the middle of the peas, as she says, I sprinkled on chopped parsley. Instead of arranging lettuce quarters over the peas and basting them with the liquid, I just strewed on the chopped lettuce and followed with the onion quarters (already falling apart, but no matter).
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Next came my major divergence. This is what I didn’t do:

So that the cooking steam will condense and fall back onto the peas, invert a lid over the saucepan and fill it with cold water or ice cubes; or use a soup plate. Bring the peas to the boil and boil slowly for 20 to 30 minutes or until tender. Several times during the period, remove the cover and toss the peas and vegetables to insure even cooking. As the water warms and evaporates in the cover or soup plate, refill with ice cubes or cold water.

I couldn’t see why a snug-fitting normal lid wouldn’t circulate steam as well as that Rube Goldberg contraption, so I just put a low flame under the pot, covered it tightly, and simmered for 20 minutes, checking and stirring once or twice. It worked perfectly well. When the peas were done, most of the liquid was gone, but that’s what the recipe said would happen anyway. So why take all that trouble? I briefly raised the heat to boil down what remained, and transferred everything to a serving dish – skipping an indicated final dose of softened butter. That would’ve been gilding the lily.

 

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The dish isn’t glamorous, but it is absolutely delicious. The flavors blend in a rich harmony. For me this is indeed the glory of pea cookery – and done in the easiest possible way.

After a dinner or two more of peas like this, and while their short season lasts, I may cross over to Italy and turn to another delicious pea dish: risi e bisi. (Background cheers from Beloved Spouse.)

Rillettes are a signature dish of the cuisine of the Loire Valley. Lush and succulent, it’s potted pork: lightly seasoned, lengthily cooked, shredded, and packed in its own fat. I was eager for rillettes on my recent French trip, but nowhere was it offered. Since France wouldn’t cooperate, I determined to make it at home.

Making rillettes looked easy enough, though time-consuming. From Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking I learned that different cities in the area have different versions, some adding rabbit, duck, or goose to the pork. I used Willan’s recipe for the rillettes of Tours, which is only pork. And pork fat: She says you should use at least half as much fat as lean and you can even use equal amounts of both.

I went to a supermarket to buy the pork, and to my surprise found the cuts were quite closely trimmed. I needed more fat. I settled for two loin chops and some fatty chunks of pork belly. (That may have been my first mistake.) I cut them in pieces as directed.
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The meat, fat, and bones went into a heavy pot along with salt, pepper, half a bay leaf, and tiny pinches of nutmeg, allspice, and thyme.
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I added half a cup of water, brought it to a boil, tightly covered the pot, and put it in a 320° oven. The recipe said it would take four to five hours for a much larger quantity than I was making. Every half hour I checked to see if it needed more water to keep the meat from frying. The belly fat was extremely reluctant to melt. Even without rind, there seemed to be something cartilaginous about it. The pot needed a lot more additional water than the recipe implied, and even so the meat was getting awfully crisp. After the full five hours I took it out of the oven.
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Next was to discard the bones and bay leaf, take out the pork, reserve the fat, and shred the meat with two forks. It did not shred easily. The larger chunks of belly had to be cut up with a poultry shear, and even the softer bits of meat were pretty stringy.
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Hoping against hope, I continued with the recipe. I mixed the cooled liquid fat with the meat. There was less fat than seemed right, so I melted down some lard and added it. Then I packed it all into a small crock and faithfully followed Willan’s quaint instruction to cover it with waxed paper and tie the paper in place with string.
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It rested in the refrigerator for two days, during which time I thought perhaps it would all soften. When I took out the crock and tried spreading some of the rillettes on a slice of baguette, it was immediately apparent that it hadn’t.
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The flavor was okay, but the texture was terrible. None of the fat had permeated the tough, dry, bits of meat. We couldn’t bring ourselves to eat it.

The next day I tried to rescue my rillettes by pureeing them through the mini food processor. That didn’t work either. It left me with a semi-smooth base of puree threaded through with stringy bits. Sigh.

So, post mortem: What went wrong here? Various possibilities, starting with the wrong kind of pork and/or too poor a quality of it. Maybe too large a pot, so the meats were too spread out in it and dried before they could tenderize. Probably much too much cooking because of the intransigent belly fat. I don’t think I can blame my recipe for any of this, only myself.

Neverthess, I’m not giving up my determination to make good rillettes. Sometime soon (but not too soon; not until after the trauma fades) I will try again, with better pork, better fat, and more attention to the procedure. It seems such a simple recipe; I should be able to do this.

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I just spent a week of bright sunny days cruising the wild, scenic, unspoiled river Loire on the MS Loire Princesse. This handsome paddle-wheel barge-type ship is French-owned, and its 90 passengers were about 60% French, 20% Spanish, and 20% British and Antipodean. Tom and I were the only Americans.

We’d been greatly looking forward to the food on the voyage. As this was a moderately priced cruise, providing good value but not extravagance, only a single three-course menu was available for each lunch and dinner. There was no particular emphasis on the cuisine of the Loire Valley. That was a bit disappointing for us, but the cooking was generally good. Every day several pleasant, simple wines were liberally poured at no cost, and there was a small list of better wines for purchase. (Tom’s blog has more to say about the wines.)
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Lunches

The lunches onboard were far larger than what we’re used to. A few times we’d have been just as happy with only a sandwich or a hamburger. But the chef prepared these menus, and we were on vacation, so we had to try them, didn’t we? Somehow, we managed to get through midday meals like these. (Wine helped, and often a little nap too.)
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Fresh pickled herring, roast veal with chanterelles, tortoni
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Mozzarella and tomato salad, filet of pork with duchesse potatoes, tiramisu
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Black Forest ham, hake filet grenobloise, raspberry cake

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Dinners

Dinners were equally elaborate and varied, with occasionally a small fourth course included. The chef had a real talent with meat and potatoes but offered few fresh seasonal vegetables other than salad greens.
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Duck terrine with sauce gribiche, stuffed filet of chicken with tagliatelle, raspberry torte
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Veal-filled beggar’s purse pasta with cream sauce, confit duck leg, crepes suzette
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Scallop salad, duck breast with port sauce, baked apple on brioche French toast

 

 

Cappuccino of cèpes, vegetables à la grecque, blanquette de veau à l’ancienne, peach melba

 

A word of explanation about the “cappuccino” just above. That’s what it looked like, but it was actually a trompe l’oeil creation: a rich soup of wild mushrooms topped with a veil of cream and a sprinkle of minced mushrooms as faux cinnamon. Quite a delicious frivolity.

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Overall, the cruise’s food was a little too elaborated, too heavily decorated, for our taste. Rather than the panoply of flavors present in most dishes, we’d have preferred having the simple quality of the main ingredients left to shine forth on their own. Also, we really regretted the dearth of local specialties. To be in the Loire Valley and not be offered rillettes or beurre blanc seemed wrong! Likewise, to be in the agricultural heart of France in mid-June and be fed carrots and brussels sprouts. But many individual dishes were excellent.  For instance, the herring in the first lunch above was as sparkling, fresh, and delicious as any I’ve ever had. The many mushroom varieties the chef seemed to love using tasted fine indeed, and he had the best hand with pasta of any French cook we’ve encountered.

After the cruise, we had a few days in the Touraine and the Orléanais on our own, where we took the opportunity to make up some of the deficit of regional dishes – e.g., fabulous white asparagus. And I’ve purchased a little French book of recipes of the châteaux of the Loire, to encourage myself to make them at home.

I’ll have no recipe to write about for this week or next: Beloved Spouse and I are in France. First we’ll be spending a week on the MS Loire Princesse, the only cruise ship capable of navigating on “the last wild river in Europe.” The boat is French-owned, and the food is supposed to be very good.
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After the cruise we’ll have a few days on our own in the countryside, with a stay at the Domaine de Beauvois, a château hotel near Tours, then an overnight in Chartres (hotel with Michelin one-star restaurant) before heading home. That is, assuming the airlines don’t pull another computer meltdown and ruin our trip. Fingers crossed!

A bientôt, mes amis.

Poulet Marengo

Napoleon Bonaparte apparently had very little time for, or interest in, what he ate. Brillat-Savarin said of him “his household was organized in such a way that no matter where he was or what the hour of the day he had but to speak one word in order to be presented with a chicken, cutlets, and coffee.”

Out of that predilection grew the chicken dish named for Bonaparte’s famous victory at the battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800. As Robert Courtine recounts the story in his fascinating historical cookbook The Hundred Glories of French Cooking, the general’s cooking wagon had gotten lost, and his chef, Durand, had nothing in his own carriage but a drum of oil and a flask of brandy. Durand sent soldiers out to scavenge in the countryside, and they returned with a few chickens, eggs, tomatoes, and garlic. Then:

In the twinkling of an eye the birds are plucked. They are cut up with a saber and set to brown in some oil while the garlic is being crushed between two stones and the tomatoes thrown into the frying pan without even being peeled. A spurt of brandy flavors the sauce. And the victorious general is served as befits a leader … [the dish] attended by a ring of fried eggs and full military honors.

If that legend is true, the combination was a great serendipity.

Courtine’s recipe is the version of Poulet Marengo I like best, and happily it doesn’t insist on either the saber or the stones. Normally I do cut up a whole chicken for it, but this time for a casual supper for three, I used just three chicken legs – thighs and drumsticks. I salted, peppered, floured, and browned them in garlicky olive oil. (Courtine wants the garlic crushed and stirred in raw at the end of the cooking, but we prefer our garlic a bit tamer than that.)
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Next I flamed them with a generous dose of brandy. It would’ve made a lovely campfire!
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As soon as the flames died I added cut-up tomatoes (peeled, I confess), along with a few more “inauthentic” ingredients called for by Courtine: white wine, salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley. This all simmered, covered, for 40 minutes.
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Meanwhile, I prepared another item added by Courtine’s recipe: slices of bread fried in olive oil. (Possibly Durand commandeered bread for Napoleon from the soldiers’ rations?)
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At the last minute I fried the eggs, set them on the fried bread slices, and placed them around the serving dish with the chicken and its sauce. Et voilà, poulet Marengo!
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It really is an excellent dish. The sharpness of the sauce, from the wine and brandy, contrasts beautifully with the lushness of the fried eggs and bread. The chicken just sits there enjoying it all – as we three diners did.