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Last week I went a little crazy at Miloski’s, the Long Island poultry farm we love. We’d driven out east 75 miles just to buy chickens. The trip itself was not unusual; we make it a few times a year, because they’re the best chickens we’ve ever had, even compared to all the free-range kinds available in Manhattan. We often make a day of it, pushing further out on the North Fork and adding farmstand and/or winery visits, even a little birdwatching. But this time we went just for chickens – straight out and straight back.

What we came back with is 18 pounds of poultry: 2 whole chickens, 10 very large chicken legs, and 4 duck legs. Even for me that’s excessive, Casasbut somehow they all called out to me. So now our freezer is full of fowl, and I’ve started happily working my way through it. Most recently I took out two of the big chicken legs and made Pollo al Vino Tinto, from Penelope Casas’s The Foods and Wines of Spain. I’ve made the recipe before and like it very much. Even Beloved Spouse – the irredeemable non-chicken-fancier – likes it, which helps ensure domestic tranquility.

I floured and browned my chicken pieces, then stirred in a mince of carrot, onion, garlic, and chorizo. Imported Spanish chorizo, I feel, is crucial to this dish.

chicken-1

When the vegetables had softened, I added a good dash of brandy and flamed it. (I tried to get a nice dramatic shot of the flames shooting up, but by the time the camera was ready I was in time to catch only the last spluttering.)

chicken-2

Next into the pan went a chopped roasted red Bell pepper – which I’ve found a reasonable substitute for a pimiento – salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, chicken broth, and red wine. Then it was just to stir, cover, and simmer until the dish was done. Casas says it takes 1½ hours, but I’ve found an hour to be fine, with the cover off toward the end to reduce the sauce a little.

chicken-3

Initially I wondered if I ought to puree that rough-looking sauce, but we actually liked the effect of the tiny nuggets of chorizo and vegetables in the same bites as the soft, tender chicken. The smoky, pimentòn spiciness of a good dry-cured chorizo gives an unmistakably Spanish lilt to this hearty, rustic dish.

chicken-4

I’ve acquired a few new cookbooks. They bring my collection, after its last culling, up to 216 volumes. Between all the new dishes I’m eager to try and all the old favorites I long to go back and make again, I’ll never live long enough to cook everything I want to. But I can try!

fabrizia-lanzaOne very promising new book is Coming Home to Sicily, by Fabrizia Lanza. The author is the daughter of Anna Tasca Lanza, doyenne of the Tasca d’Almerita family’s Regaleali wine estate and creator of its famous cooking school, which Fabrizia now runs. (In 1992, on a food- and wine-writers’ trip, I spent two days at Regaleali, meeting the formidable Marchesa Anna, exploring the estate and the vineyards, observing a cooking demonstration, and eating extraordinary Sicilian country meals. Below are a few photographic mementoes of the occasion.)

It’s a handsome book, with beautiful photography, which makes great reading. Not all the recipes are practical for US cooks, because some call for ingredients that are available mainly from the Sicilian countryside; e.g., Tasca Lanza’s famous sun-dried tomato paste, fresh citrons, green almonds, tuna roe and sperm (!), and many kinds of wild greens and herbs. Not that those recipes are completely impossible: We could make them with the nearest approximations we can get here, but they wouldn’t be at all the same.

For my first venture into the book, I chose to make a simple recipe with easily accessible imgredients: Pesce spada impanato or grilled swordfish steak with breadcrumbs. For me, it was interesting because, first, the raw fish gets 30 minutes of marinating in seasoned olive oil, and second, because it is grilled, not broiled or baked.

I’ve always thought swordfish was so naturally fatty that added oil would be superfluous – which apparently was wrong, and probably why some of my past broiled swordfish steaks have been too dry! This time I found the garlic, salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes that permeated the olive oil definitely enhanced the flavor of the fish.

marinating

Additionally, the moisture of the marinade helped the breadcrumbs coat the swordfish steak evenly. And cooking it on a stove burner in a grill pan (since I don’t have access to an outdoor grill) rather than in the broiler worked perfectly. You could easily see when the bottom half had changed color, meaning the steak was ready to be turned.

grilling

The simply cooked fish was moist and tender, still very fresh tasting, under its crisp coating. All it needed was a squeeze of lemon to make it a pleasure to eat.

 

 

Regaleali, September 1992

regaleali-courtyard

Courtyard

 

Anna Tasca Lanza

Anna Tasca Lanza

 

Cooking demonstration by chef Mario Lo Menso

Cooking demonstration by chef Mario Lo Menso

Incidentally, the person a portion of whose striped shirt you can see in two of the photos is the then-80-year-old Julia Child, whose enthusiastic presence on that trip made it all the more delightful.

 

 

Cooking may not be the first thing anyone would think of in connection with Sophia Loren. But in fact, that gorgeous and talented woman – who once said “Everything you see, I owe to spaghetti” – loves food and cooking and knows a lot about it. She has written (alone; no “coauthor”) a pair of cookbooks, one of which I acquired many years ago in Rome.

cucina-con-amore

It’s a chatty book, a bit of a challenge for my limited knowledge of Italian, but very interesting to read, with a distinctive personal voice. The recipes are written in the typical throw-away Italian manner: giving hardly any quantities, detailed instructions, or cooking times – just a casual narrative, as if the reader of course knows how these sorts of dishes are made. Hence, it’s also a good challenge for my culinary instincts.
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This week I embarked on Loren’s Minestra di pasta e patate. Americans may cringe at the combination of starch and starch, but the whole concept of “a starch” is alien to Italy. Potatoes are a vegetable; pasta goes well with vegetables; what could hurt? Italian cuisine has many recipes for pasta with potatoes, and in recent years the dish has become fashionable in Italy.  Chefs and cookbook writers work this simple peasant recipe with all kinds of culinary bells and whistles – which is fine: they all taste good. But the main reason they do is because of the simple brilliance of the combination of basic ingredients. Loren’s version, which she may have learned from her childhood in the slums of Pozzuoli, is, as she says, truly a dish of the poor, but it is wonderfully good.

The recipe calls for a kilo of potatoes, which is the only ingredient given a measurement; I had to estimate everything else. Actually, I was making a smaller quantity, since what I had in the pantry was 12 ounces of small boiling potatoes. So Beloved Spouse and I conferred and chose the other quantities. To start, I gently softened 4 chopped plum tomatoes, a few basil leaves, and ⅓ cup of chopped carrot in just a film of olive oil, for 10 minutes.

minestra-base

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Next I stirred in the potatoes, cut in small pieces, and raised the heat.

with-potatoes

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When the mixture came to a simmer I covered the pot, reduced the heat to low, and cooked until the potatoes were beginning to soften, which took about 12 minutes. Then I added two cups of hot water and four ounces of bucatini, broken into small pieces.

invisible-pasta

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As you can see above, that made the dish quite soupy. (The pasta sank immediately; you can’t see it at all there.) But a minestra is not exactly a soup: it’s denser and less brothy, though wetter than a typically sauced dish of pasta. So I kept the pot simmering, uncovered, until the pasta and potatoes were both al dente and the liquid much reduced and slightly thickened. That’s it: it was ready to eat.

served

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Plain as it looks, this was pure ambrosia; total comfort food. Though the recipe mentions no condiments at all, I suspected that a dinner table in Naples would be bound to have salt, black pepper, red pepper flakes, olive oil, and grated pecorino on it, so diners could season their bowl to their taste. So we did that. I can report that pasta and potatoes loves all those things, in almost any combination. Beloved Spouse is of the opinion that adding a pinch or two of crushed red pepper to the pot while cooking would have raised the magic even a notch higher. As it was, we two had no trouble finishing most of this classic Neapolitan dish.

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P.S. An amusing aspect of the book is its array of photos of Sophia, in both “glamour” and “culinary” settings. Here are a few:

sophia-pix

Ratatouille

I can’t let a summer go by without making ratatouille at least once. Actually, I’d probably make it several times, but Beloved Spouse prefers the Italian style of vegetable mélange – perhaps because he usually ends up slicing, chopping, and mincing all the components. I like the Italian type too, but there’s a ratatouille recipe I love to make: a very complex one from the Cooking of Provincial France volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

VergeThis time I let BS off the hook, because I had found a different version of ratatouille that I wanted to try, and I was prepared to do all the knife work for it on a free afternoon while he watched a pre-season football game. The recipe is from Cuisine of the South of France, by Roger Vergé, the legendary chef of the Michelin three-star Moulin de Mougins restaurant in Provence.  So I approached this experience with high expectations, while BS readied himself for another season of dashed hopes.

Vergé calls it La ratatouille niçoise à ma façon and says that while the usual dish of that name “creates itself during a long slow cooking, taking about 2 to 3 hours,” his gives you “the advantage of keeping the freshness and texture of the individual vegetables.” That sounded attractive, even though my Time-Life book’s recipe (by the redoubtable M.F.K. Fisher) doesn’t cook for anything like that much time. So I gathered a half recipe’s worth of Vergé’s ingredients and set to work.
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ingredients

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Vergé is particular about the type of vegetables to use and the way to handle them. Peeling, seeding, and dicing the tomatoes were no problem, nor slicing up the green pepper and onion. Peeling stripes into the zucchini was attractive, and I duly cut them lengthwise and crosswise as indicated. Cutting up the eggplants – he specifies that long, slender type – was a bit of a poser, because he wants them in pieces “the size of your thumb.” For the size my eggplants were, the pieces would have had to be either fatter and flatter than my thumb or much skinnier than it. I went with fat and flat.

cut up ingredients

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First I cooked the tomatoes in olive oil in a very hot skillet for just 2 minutes and moved them to a plate. In another pan I softened the onions and peppers together in oil for 15 minutes and added them to the tomatoes’ plate. In yet another pan, with high heat, I was to brown the eggplant pieces in oil and drain them in a colander set over a bowl to catch the oil they’d give off. That was a problem.

eggplant

Flat on one side and round on the other, my eggplant pieces refused to brown evenly. Also, they absorbed all the oil, needed more, and gave none back. Same shape and same situation with the zucchini, last to be sautéed.

That was all the cooking any of the vegetables got. At dinner time I mixed everything together in a casserole, merely heated it through, and stirred in minced garlic and chopped basil leaves.

ratatouille 2

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It wasn’t bad, this ratatouille. Those vegetables always blend well together – though parts of the zucchini pieces had a faint flavor of char from my difficulty in browning them evenly. But the vegetables didn’t taste any fresher than they do in my preferred recipe. In fact, the flavors were a little muddled. And there wasn’t nearly as much tomato presence as I like.

The Time-Life ratatouille recipe uses twice the amount of tomato, cuts it in big strips, lays them on paper towels to absorb some of their liquid, and doesn’t cook them separately at all. Also, it carefully layers the individual vegetables in their casserole and simmers it covered for 30 minutes. That way, the vegetables exude a lot of liquid, but you keep drawing it off with a bulb baster and, at the end, boil it down to a luscious glaze that you pour over the ratatouille – which makes a dish that’s much prettier on the plate and far more interesting to eat.

So, though I wouldn’t turn up my nose at another dish of Vergé’s ratatouille if I encountered one somewhere, in my own kitchen I’ll stick with the version I love best.

The very hot weather we’ve been having has sent me paging through my cookbook collection for light, summery, everyday dinner appetizers for two. In three Italian books I found attractive versions of roasted stuffed tomatoes, all similar in some respects but different in the details. I decided to try the three on successive evenings to see how they compared. Here are the books I used:

cookbooks

The experiment was definitely a success. Tomatoes are now at their peak of flavor, all three preparations were very good, and each was sufficiently unlike the others to keep them welcome for the second and third days.

 

Baked Stuffed Tomatoes from La Tavola Italiana

Unashamedly, I started with the recipe from my own first cookbook for the first evening’s dish. (I knew we’d like that one.) I cut a thin slice off the top of two medium-sized round tomatoes, gently squeezed out the seeds and some of the juices, hollowed out the shells with my tomato shark – a very useful little gadget, by the way – and chopped the flesh.

Diane tomatoes

For the stuffing I sauteed some minced onion in olive oil and mixed into it chopped basil leaves, tiny capers, a minced anchovy fillet, quite a lot of grated parmigiano and fine dry breadcrumbs, the chopped tomato flesh, salt, and a generous quantity of black pepper.

diane stuffed

Once filled with this stuffing, the tomatoes got a drizzle of olive oil on top and went into a 350° oven for 20 minutes. I let them come down almost to room temperature before we ate them. The soft filling was very tasty, contrasting nicely with the bright acidity of the tomato cases.

Diane served

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Pomodori al Gratin from Naples at Table

The next day I made the recipe from Arthur Schwartz’s Naples at Table. I cut my two tomatoes in half across the diameter; scooped out the pulp and, without chopping it, put the little chunks in a sieve to drain; and salted the interior of the shells and set them upside down on a rack to drip off some of their moisture.

Arthur tomatoes

Compared to my own recipe’s stuffing, this one is much lighter on breadcrumbs and heavier on capers. It has finely minced garlic, dried oregano, and black pepper. No grated cheese or anchovy. I mixed in the tomato pulp, filled the half shells with it, and topped each with olive oil.

arthur stuffed

These went into a 400° oven for a full hour – “until the tomatoes have collapsed,” Schwartz says. Mine didn’t quite collapse, but they shrank noticeably. The long, hot roasting intensified their natural sweetness, and the modest amount of filling made a pleasant, crunchy contrast. Again, we ate them just slightly above room temperature.

Arthur served

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Roman Rice-Stuffed Tomatoes from The Italian Vegetable Cookbook

Michele Scicolone’s recipe made the most substantial of the three tomato dishes. I hollowed out the tomatoes as usual, but took a deeper cut from the tops, saved the caps, chopped the pulp, and saved its juices. The base ingredient of the stuffing was short-grain Italian rice, which I simply boiled in salted water. Pulp and juice were stirred into the rice, along with a hefty dose of grated pecorino Romano cheese, chopped fresh basil, olive oil, and black pepper.

michele ingredients

That made a lot of filling. I had to tamp it down into the tomato shells and pile it up under the little caps. Fortunately, it all held together for its half hour of baking at 425°.

michele served

Served just warm, this was a milder dish than either of the first two: The well-flavored rice was the star, with the tomatoes serving mainly as an edible container.

michele plated

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Tomatoes can be stuffed with many other ingredients, of course: small pasta, such as orzo or ditalini, are often used, along with diced ham or tuna.  But these three recipes share an authentic southern Italian simplicity and tang that makes them perfect for summer dining. It would be interesting, I think, to serve all three on a major mixed antipasto platter, so the contrasts would be immediate. Making them would be a bit laborious, but since all the roasting can be done well in advance and the tomatoes can be eaten hot, warm, or at room temperature, the timing could be easily accommodated. Maybe some day . . .

I was away last week in southern Maine. Beloved Spouse and I rented a cottage near the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, whose forests, marshes, estuaries, and beaches are scattered along 50 miles of the coastline. It was high season for the southbound migration of shorebirds, and we’d hoped to see vast numbers of them during our stay. Alas, we didn’t: There were disappointingly few birds of any kind, though the landscapes and seascapes were quite lovely. Why the birds didn’t appreciate that we can’t imagine. However, we did eat some wonderful seafood, as I’m about to show you.

Or course, there were good chowders: clam, fish, lobster, and mixed seafood. At home we make tomato-based, spicy Manhattan-style chowders, so the New England-style versions were a nice change of pace. Here’s a cup of one of the best we had. It was dense with fresh, tender clams, bathed in extravagant amounts of cream and butter.

clam chowder

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Another excellent appetizer was this bowl of steamers, also sparklingly fresh and briny; served with the traditional clam broth and drawn butter for dunking. From many years back, I remembered the knack of picking up each clam by the neck and grabbing the body with your teeth so it pulls right out of the neck skin, which you then discard.

steamers 2

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We ventured on a few more elaborate starters. Here’s a plate of baby lobster cakes and a dish of mushroom caps stuffed with crabmeat. Actually, they’d both have been better if they’d had somewhat less binder and more crustacean – but they were still pretty good.

appetizers

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Naturally, lobsters were everywhere. Over the week I think we saw more lobsters, both live and cooked, than we saw tourists – and, in Maine in August, that’s saying something! Since neither of us can readily dismember a whole boiled lobster without stabbing ourselves with a pick or a piece of shell or claw, we both happily ate a dish called Lazy Lobster: all the meat of a 1¼-pound lobster, taken out of the shell in large, neat chunks and presented in a pool of lemon butter.

lazy lobster

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Then there were the fried dishes. Clam strips, whole belly clams, oysters – always with good crunchy coatings and sweet tender flesh. Serving sizes were so generous that we never finished the french fries that always came along on the plate

fried things

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Last but not least, there were rolls. For our very first lunch in Maine, enroute to our rented cottage, we stopped at a little restaurant we knew nothing about, and I had the best lobster roll I’ve eaten in my life. It had the whole tail and both large claws of a lobster heaped on a lightly toasted, well flavored, large round roll. Alas, my camera was still packed in the duffle bag, so I couldn’t photograph it. For lunch a few days later, we had crab rolls, served more conventionally on a hot-doggish bun, with a good cole slaw and fried onion nuggets (the small central segments of onion slices whose big rings were used for standard fried onion rings). The crabmeat was finely shredded and dressed with a light tang of malt vinegar. Unusual (or so it semed to us), and very nice.

crab roll

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We probably ate more butter and more fried food during this single week than we usually do in a whole season, but the dreadful fact that neither nutritionists nor dieters nor “healthy eaters” ever want to acknowledge is that, when done well, frying makes all food – but especially ocean-fresh seafood – taste marvelous. So, despite the dearth of birds, our trip to Maine had some powerful consolations.

contentment

 

Beloved Spouse is the gumbo cook in our household. In summer, when okra is abundant, he gathers his ingredients about him and produces a gumbo that IMHO equals anything a New Orleans chef can do. I’ve written here about his seafood gumbo, and now I’d like to introduce you to another kind that he makes.

Usually, he starts from the gumbo recipes in Richard and Rima Collins’ The New Orleans Cookbook, checks back with the chosen one from time to time to remind himself of details, but then goes on to vary the ingredients and proportions to suit himself. Always using okra: He’s not a filé gumbo person, and he has a decided preference for the kind of flavor an okra gumbo develops.

okra

For this occasion a large boneless chicken breast, two Louisiana andouilles, and a chunk of thick-cut boiled ham provided the protein base. He cut the chicken into chunks, the sausages into coins, and the ham into dice. Continuing the preparatory knife work, he then sliced ¾ pound of okra (Note to the squeamish: If the okra, your knife, and the cutting surface are dry, the okra slime will not be a problem) and chopped up a cup of green pepper, a cup of onions, ¼ cup of scallions, and a large heirloom tomato. Very simple prep work, if a little time consuming.  My only contribution was to set out the other ingredients he’d be needing: olive oil, flour, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, cayenne, salt and black pepper.

gumbo ingredients

After browning the chicken pieces in olive oil and removing them to a plate, he stirred flour into the oil and cooked it about 10 minutes, to a light brown roux. Then the andouille, ham, and all the vegetables except the okra and tomato got added in and stirred. After 10 more minutes, the chicken rejoined the pot, along with all the spices and a little water. This cooked for yet another 10 minutes and then – finally – in went the okra, tomatoes, and a quart of water.

gumbo broth

At this point, the pot got covered and the gumbo cooked gently for an hour, with an occasional stir, after which it was done. I was permitted to check occasionally to be sure it was continuing to simmer and that nothing was sticking. And at dinner time, I cooked the rice.

gumbo plated

This was a terrific gumbo. The andouilles’ own spices had permeated all the ingredients, giving a much needed boost to the bland chicken breast. (The chef wished ardently that we had had some legs and thighs on hand.) All the vegetables merged seamlessly into a stew that tasted purely of New Orleans. And, as always, we wound up eating most of a portion that was supposed to feed four.