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Tom and I are away for three weeks on a birding trip around Spain with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

spain trip map

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While officially it’s purely a birding trip, for us it’s just as much a food and wine trip. The VENT leaders are usually as good at choosing restaurants as they are at 61jYp3TZ27L__AA160_finding birds, so we look forward to some interesting meals.

Anticipating the adventure a bit, and also to get us into the proper mood for Iberian-style eating, I made a modest tapas dinner the other day, using three recipes from Penelope Casas’ book Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain.

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The main item was Fried Squid, Spanish-Style. Casas calls this “a classic on the tapas circuit,” a dish likely to be available almost anywhere in Spain. If so, hooray! – because these were excellent. The squid had to be cut in rings, dried thoroughly, dusted with flour, dipped in egg, deep-fried for less than three minutes, and dressed with sea salt and lemon juice. They were beautifully tender and fresh-tasting.

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Alongside, I’d made an Onion Tortilla. Normally, I make tortilla española, that luscious, thick, soft, eggy cake of fried potatoes and onions. This one had no potato but lots of minced sweet Spanish onions, which made it lighter but also delicious. Even easier to make: Soften onions in olive oil; cool them; mix them into beaten eggs, milk, salt, and pepper; then cook the whole mixture very slowly in a pan until it just sets. It’s good hot, warm, or cool.

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For a bright contrast with those two dishes, I made a little Cumin-flavored Carrot Salad – which Casas says is a specialty of a well-known bar in Cadiz. I simmered whole carrots in chicken broth and water until almost done; let them cool and sliced them; dressed them in wine vinegar, oregano, cumin, paprika, and salt, and left them to marinate all afternoon. Bracing!

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The three together made a very pleasant week-night supper. I have great hopes for our eating in Spain. I won’t be posting here again until well into May, but then I hope I’ll have some good dishes to write about from the trip. ¡Hasta la vista!

Skate is a great fish – not at all “fishy” in the negative sense but definitely of the sea, “sea-y,” and in texture closer to very tender veal or chicken. I buy it often, and almost always serve it just one way: poached and dressed with black butter. It’s a very satisfying dish, and I never tire of it. (In fact, I wrote about it here last year.) But this week, when I succumbed to a pair of skate wings again at my fish market, I resolved to try something new with them. ??????????????????????????????? . I found a promising approach in Bistro: Favorite Parisian Bistro Recipes by Sharon O’Connor: Effiloché de Raie au Chou Croquant, attributed to the restaurant Chez BistroPauline. Now, that got my attention.  For more than 20 years, Tom and I loved Chez Pauline and always ate there when we visited Paris. (In my journal about a trip in 1978, I described a meal there as “one of the great dinners of the western world.”) Eventually it was awarded a Michelin star, but apparently it later fell onto hard times, because it was demoted to two crossed forks before it went out of business, just a few years ago. But for old times’ sake, I decided to make this skate dish. It was a pretty simple recipe. The filleted skate was to be sauteed in oil – hazelnut or olive – “until golden,” and transferred to a platter to keep warm. Not having any hazelnut oil, I used olive, and my skate didn’t turn golden at all. There was really no way it could have, with a mere tablespoon of oil and the brief cooking time it needed, and I didn’t worry about it. In the same pan, with no further oil, I sauteed shredded and lightly blanched Savoy cabbage for 2 minutes, added 1 peeled, seeded, and diced tomato, 1½ teaspoons of white vinegar, and 1 teaspoon of “crushed” hazelnuts (I assumed that meant chopped, though I did try to smash the nuts a bit with the flat of my knife.) and cooked for 2 minutes more. Then I simply spread the cabbage on plates and set the pieces of skate on top. I was supposed to fan them out attractively, but they were already naturally fan-shaped, so I didn’t. ??????????????????????????????? . The final instruction was to spoon the pan sauce over each portion and serve. By this point I was more than skeptical about the recipe: There wasn’t an iota of sauce in my pan. How could there be, with so little liquid? In fact, there wouldn’t even have been enough oil in which to sauté the skate in the first place if I hadn’t used a nonstick pan. Well, the skate itself was fine, its firm, white flesh subtle and at the same time rich, and readily flaking into attractive strands. But the vegetable remained just plain cabbage. We couldn’t detect any effect of the hazelnuts or tomato or vinegar, and the only crunchiness was in the cabbage’s own texture.  I wondered if I’d missed a step, but that was the whole of the recipe. Very strange. Perhaps this dish was, as described, a specialty of the restaurant in its latter days, but I find it hard to believe it would have been prepared this way. Maybe the chef would have flash-seared the skate to get it golden, then cooked the cabbage longer, in much more fat and more tomato and nuts, so the flavors would blend? Even so, this is not the way I want to remember “my” Chez Pauline. For instance, here’s what Tom and I ate at that “great dinner of the western world”:

Mousse de brochet

Terrine de poissons, sauce Lyonnaise

½ bottle Sancerre

Ris de veau en feuilletage

Marcassin, sauce grand veneur

1 bottle Moulin à vent

Gâteau de riz

Tarte Tatin

2 cafés

2 Vieille Prune

All this cost us 314 francs – about $63.  Où sont les neiges d’antan, eh?

Banana Tarte Tatin

In my house, we love bananas – but we’re fussy about them. We’re convinced that Costa Rica produces the best bananas in the Western Hemisphere. Next best are those from other Central American countries, and least interesting to us are South American bananas. (We’ve eaten most of those in their homes, as well as ours, so our preferences are based on tasting, not politics.) Inevitably, however, the most common varieties in our local stores are from Colombia and Ecuador; next most common from Honduras and Guatemala; and only very occasionally are there Costa Ricans.

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When there are, we tend to buy too many, and it’s a race to see if we can consume them before they consume themselves with overripeness. Sometimes, we even have to put a few in the refrigerator, despite the prohibition ingrained in me from my youth by the song that Chiquita Banana used to sing on the radio.

To help get through my latest too-big batch, I thought I’d try a banana dessert. With the Chiquita song burbling in my brain, I looked up the company’s website. It had 74 banana dessert recipes – many that I found absurdly overelaborated and way too sweet. But one fairly simple one appealed: a Tarte Tatin made with bananas instead of apples.

???????????????????????????????It was quite an easy variation on this classic dessert. Instead of creating the caramel syrup in the cast-iron skillet that’s then used for the baking, I was able to blend and brown my butter and sugar in a nonstick frying pan, flavor the caramel with cinnamon and nutmeg, and just pour it into a clean rectangular baking dish.

???????????????????????????????Slicing the bananas was the only tricky part. The recipe called for long diagonal slices. Try that with a typical comma-shaped banana without wondering how it’s supposed to be done. But I persevered by not taking it over-literally. Then I sprinkled lemon juice over my quasi-diagonally sliced bananas, spread them in the dish . . .

???????????????????????????????. . . and tucked a pastry cover over and around them all. The recipe called for puff pastry, but I didn’t have any on hand and didn’t want to make it for as small a quantity as I needed, so I substituted sweet short pastry (a quick, reliable pâte sablée recipe from Simca’s Cuisine by Simone Beck).

The tart baked nicely in about half an hour in a hot oven. When, at my request, Tom bravely took the responsibility for turning it upside down onto a serving plate, it slipped out neatly and looked just fine, with a rich, almost mahogany color.

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When we tasted it, I thought it the weirdest fruit tart I’ve ever had: insidiously sweet and mildly spicy, but those flavors somehow balanced by the savoriness of the pastry crust – not using puff pastry turned out to be a wise move. We almost wouldn’t have been able to tell that the fruit was banana until we’d chewed through a mouthful. So, in a way, that was disappointing: Clearly, I could have used lesser varieties of banana than my Costa Rican lovelies to achieve the same result. But, interestingly, when we ate leftover slices the next day, the good banana flavor came up more strongly, as did the spices. A most unusual, and in the upshot quite enjoyable, dessert. Thank you, Chiquita.

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Under the crust of this innocent-looking pot pie is a Faisan à la Vosgienne, which owes its debut at my dining table to D’Artagnan. That is, not to Dumas’ dashing musketeer, but to New Jersey’s excellent purveyor of foie gras, game birds, and similar delicacies. An online flash sale (serious discounts, free shipping) caught my eye, and before I knew it I had acquired a shoulder of wild boar, a Muscovy duck, a squab, a chicken, and a wild Scottish pheasant.

These pheasants, I was assured, are truly wild birds, living free on private estates and preserves, available only in hunting season. They even come with a warning to chew carefully, in case of shotgun pellets. Unwrapping mine, I was dismayed to discover that its wings had been entirely removed. Shot off? But otherwise it was an attractive little beast, weighing just over a pound.

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I scoured my cookbooks for something appropriate to make with the pheasant and Willansettled on an Alsace recipe from Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. The à la vosgienne preparation most commonly involves sauerkraut, but Willan gives a version in which the cut-up pheasant is baked with mushrooms and egg noodles under a pastry crust. It sounded delicious, and I thought the moist cooking would help tenderize my bird, whose active lifestyle would have given it more muscle and sinew, and less fat, than the more readily available farm-raised pheasants.

The recipe that proved to be as labor-intensive in the preparation as it turned out to be in the eating. I started early in the afternoon by making and refrigerating the pastry, using 6 ounces of butter and 2 of lard for 1½ cups of flour. Next I browned my bird in butter in a casserole, poured half a cup of white wine over it, and cooked it covered in a 375° oven for 45 minutes. Then I set it on a plate to cool while I made the sauce.

For the sauce I added more wine to the casserole; deglazed and reduced the liquid by half on a stove burner; added broth; brought it to a boil; and whisked in bits of butter kneaded with flour until the sauce thickened nicely. That also got set aside to cool.

I sauteed the mushrooms in fresh butter, cooked the noodles and tossed them with more butter (Are you noticing a theme here?), and cut the pheasant into serving pieces. Finally it was time to put everything together in a baking dish – buttered, of course.

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Half the noodles went into the dish, followed by the pheasant, the mushrooms, the sauce, the remaining noodles, and – guess what – dots of butter. I rolled out the pastry, cut a cover and laid it over the dish, brushed the pastry with egg glaze, and baked the pie in a 400° oven. As it baked, it filled the kitchen with a heavenly aroma.

The flavors were pretty heavenly too. The pheasant was intensely meaty, just gamy enough to be clearly not a domestic fowl. I must admit, it wasn’t the easiest thing to eat: definitely chewy (though no birdshot) even in the dense breast meat, and lots of sinews in the darkly rich leg meat. In its lifetime that bird must have done a lot of fast running through the Scottish fields and forest. The sauce clothed the noodles and mushrooms most elegantly.

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To accompany the pheasant pie, Tom had taken from his wine closet an older Riesling from Alsace, which we drank from a treasured pair of 19th-century Rhine wine glasses, just for the fun of it.

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I’ll let him tell you how the wine was.

The wine was 2001 Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frederick Émile – not the top of Trimbach’s line, but a respectable bottle. The color had gone golden, with amber tints – very pretty, and in no way indicating tiredness or overagedness: Riesling just normally deepens in color like that. The nose was fine, with a mature nuttiness and the scent that those who dislike it usually call diesel oil – unflattering, but approximately true. On the palate, the wine was lovely – medium-bodied and very round, with dried white fruit and nuts (almond and hazel- rather than wal-), and a delicate, lingering finish. It matched beautifully with the dish, having no trouble with the gaminess of the bird or the earthiness of the mushrooms or the pervasive butteriness of the noodles and crust.  We sipped the last glass slowly, by itself, after game-bird-and-butter satiety had set in.                       – TEM

 

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.

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