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It isn’t officially winter yet, but some days are beginning to feel like it. Raw, damp weather naturally gets me thinking about hearty rib-sticking things to eat. In the vegetable category, winter squashes fill the bill, so on my latest trip to the Greenmarket, I picked up one from the heaps on display at all the stands.
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I almost always choose butternuts, pale and plain-looking as they are, because their thick, straight necks and small seed cavities provide a greater proportion of usable flesh and are easier to peel than the round, ridged varieties. Besides, they’re very tasty.

This day I wanted to try a new recipe I’d found in Elizabeth Schneider’s encyclopedic tome Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini. The author says her Baked Winter Squash and Apple Puree with Nuts is “more flavorful and subtle than you might expect from the few and familiar ingredients.” Hard to resist a come-on like that!

(I was going to be cutting back the recipe significantly. It gives quantities for 12 servings, and I was making it for just 2. Fortunately, its calling for 6 pounds of squash and 6 apples made it easy to scale down.)

It started out easily enough. In mid-afternoon I put the whole, unpeeled squash and a large Rome apple into a 350° oven to bake until they were tender.
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The recipe said to give the apple 45 minutes, but it cooked faster than that: I got it out of the oven just in time to keep it from turning to applesauce. Romes are like that: They’re the quintessential cooking apple.
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The squash took about two hours to soften, as expected. I cut it in half and left it to cool.
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The next step was to puree one cup of the squash flesh in a food mill, along with the peeled and cored flesh of the apple. My two-pound squash had made much more than a cup’s worth, but I was happy to put the rest of it into the freezer for a future “pumpkin” pie.
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Seasoned with salt, pepper, and a tablespoon of melted butter, the puree went into a buttered gratin dish to await its topping.
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While the squash was baking, I’d made the topping by grinding a sixth of a cup each of roughly chopped hazelnuts and dried breadcrumbs in my mini food processor.
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As dinner time approached, I sprinkled the nut mixture over the puree, grated on a little frozen butter, and baked the dish in a 425° oven for half an hour. The topping should have come out evenly browned, but mine didn’t. My frozen butter had stubbornly clung to the grater, had to be detached in little clots, and refused to spread evenly, so the only brown parts were where the butter had landed on the crumbs. But the dish looked pretty good anyway.
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And it tasted very good. From the faint fruit sweetness, you could tell there was something in addition to squash in the dish, but you might not guess it was apple. The effect was indeed subtle, as the headnote said. And the tiny crunch of the nutty crumbs was a nice contrast to the smooth puree. Altogether, this made an excellent companion to the simply roasted duck legs we served for dinner that evening: compatible flavors and very interesting textures.
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Two Lunches in Lisbon

Before Tom and I went on the Douro river cruise that I wrote about here last week, we spent two days in Lisbon; the first time there for me. It provided only the briefest taste of the city, but we made the most of it – especially gastronomically.

We had two delightful lunches there that were the very essence of serendipity. At the end of the first morning’s strolling, we happened upon a little street entirely filled with tables set for lunch.

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Checking out the establishments along the route, we stopped at one called Bebedouro, which had a chalkboard menu posted on the wall.
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The list of tapas was irresistible. We didn’t even look inside the door; just grabbed one of the little tables on the street. Not sure how big the modestly priced dishes would be, we started by ordering just two. A good thing that was, because they were large: what the Spanish would call not tapas but racions. Both were fabulous.
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Octopus in confit of peppers

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Potatoes fused with cheese and mushrooms

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The wine list featured flights of three wines for €16. We chose one of the red flights and received generous-sized pours, all from the Douro region and all new to us.
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They graduated quite interestingly from light and fruity to bigger and more complex and made interesting matches with the food. (Tom will be writing more about the wines we drank in Portugal on his blog.)

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That perfect little meal made us so happy that we returned to Bebeduro for lunch the next day. We chose from the fish tapas this time, both of which were just as delicious as the previous ones.
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Roasted tuna in tomato sauce with hummus

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Sardines in olive oil

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This time we tried one of the flights of white wines – again, all from the Douro. They varied from each other and matched with the tapas just as interestingly as the reds had done.
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The four dishes we had at those lunches were so good that I’m determined to try recreating some of them in my own kitchen. The only one that I could do immediately was the sardines. That’s because we were so impressed by the quality of the Portuguese sardines available in their home territory that we brought back five cans of a recommended brand.

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So here is the tapas plate I made with them just the other day. Not as pretty as Bebedouro’s, but definitely in the ballpark for tastiness.
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Even the olive oil from the sardine can was so good we slathered it all over our bread. (I brought home three bottles of olive oil, too.) Next I’ll be trying the potato, cheese, and mushroom dish because I’ve found a recipe online that looks as if it would work. After that, on to tackle the octopus!

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P.S. Though we had no idea of this at the time, I’ve learned from my back-home Web research that Bebedouro is very well known for both food and wine. It seems to be listed in at least one major guidebook and has an enormously enthusiastic online following. Perhaps I should have titled this post “Lucking Out in Lisbon.”

 

 

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Tom and I are just back from a week’s cruise on Portugal’s Douro river. We traveled upriver from Porto, on the Atlantic coast, about halfway to the Spanish border and back. The scenery was picturesque: vineyards, forests, vineyards, olive groves, vineyards, villages, and yet more vineyards. Above all, the Douro valley is Port wine country, but it also makes an abundance of red and white table wines.

Our ship, the Infante Don Henrique, carried 86 passengers from 8 countries, of which only we were from the USA. This was our third river cruise with the Croisieurope line. (See the others here and here.) It serves only one menu for each meal: three or four courses, at both lunch and dinner. Happily, this cruise included many Portuguese specialties, peppered among the line’s good standard hotel-style fare.

The wines – both simple ones poured generously for free and an array of better bottles to buy at modest prices – were almost all Portuguese. Accordingly, we ate and drank very interestingly (not to say excessively) throughout the trip. Here are some of the dishes we particularly liked..

Appetizers

The Portuguese influence on the ship’s cuisine was most prominent among the first courses. Here were cured ham from the prized Iberico black pig; sweet, tender melon from the Azores; a flavorful ricotta-like cheese on toasted whole-grain bread; a locally traditional meat-filled puff pastry tart; three kinds of luscious spicy sausages – chouriço, linguiça, and morcela; and a taste of the nation’s excellent olive-oil preserved sardines.
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Presunto ham and Portuguese melon

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Requeijao cheese tartine

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Pastel de Chaves

 

Grilled sausages, sardine toast

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Main Courses

For the principal lunch and dinner dishes, our chef turned mostly to international hotel-style preparations: everything meticulously designed on the plates and perfectly good, if not very exciting. There was one exception to that pattern, which I’m saving for last..
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Filet of sole with spiny lobster

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Chicken breast stuffed with linguiça

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Braised lamb

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Duck leg with fig and port wine sauce

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The Pièce de Résistance: Bacalhau com Nata
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This big dish of salt cod with cream sauce was presented to our five-person dinner table. My heart sank when I saw it. I knew that salt cod – baccalà – was practically the Portuguese national food, but I’d disliked every version of it that I’d ever tasted, in Europe or America. Nevertheless, I had to try it. Wow! It was terrific. Absolutely delicious.

The cod tasted like fresh fish. It was mingled with potatoes and swathed in a rich bechamel, probably seasoned with onions and wine. It went beautifully with the salad of baby greens and black olives. One of the first things I did when I got home was look up recipes for this dish. There are many online, and I’m going to try one very soon. Only, I’ll make it with fresh cod, not baccalà. That can’t hurt, surely? I’ll let you know.

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Before the cruise, we’d spent two days in Lisbon, where we also ate interestingly and very well. My next week’s post will be about that gastronomical adventure. Tom will also be doing a post on his blog about at least some of the wines we drank on the cruise and in Lisbon.

After you’ve been eating high on the hog for some time – and we’re now moving into that season – you need a day or two with a homely dinner of comfort food: something easy, familiar, and unchallenging, to get your overstimulated palate back onto an even keel. Lately what fills that bill for me is a dish of baked Italian sweet sausages, green Bell peppers, Spanish onions, and plain white potatoes.
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Oven baking is key here. Of course, these foods take very well to being sautéed or pan-fried, alone or in combination, but sizzling in hot oil over a direct flame is a harsh sort of treatment. The slower penetration of surrounding heat in an oven softens foods more gently, allows their flavors to blend more, and gives them quite a different effect in the mouth.
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Baking also needs only a fairly minimal effort and very little tending. The four named items do have to be cut up, in more or less equal-sized pieces..
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And the potatoes do have to be parboiled in salted water until they begin to soften enough that they’ll be fully cooked when the other components are. After that, you just put everything in a broad baking dish, slosh on as much olive oil as you like, stir, and add salt and pepper.
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The dish goes into a 400° or 425° oven for 30 to 45 minutes, until all the vegetables are soft. You can give it a stir occasionally if you like, when you’re testing things for doneness. Then just take it to the table and serve it out, sighing comfortably as you consume it..

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Tom wants me to mention that a bottle of young Chianti Classico is the final touch that exalts this homely, delicious fare.

Pasta e fagioli is Italian soul food. This quintessential peasant dish has an endless number of regional, local, and individual variations, each fiercely defended by its partisans as the absolute best. Those of us not invested in a particular version have the pleasure of enjoying them all.

When Tom and I did our first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana, we took advantage of that abundance and developed three pasta e fagioli recipes of our own, one each in the styles we’d had in northern, central, and southern Italy:

  • Venetian: fresh egg pasta, pinto beans, and a big pork bone
  • Roman: short tubular pasta, white beans, tomato sauce, and pork skin
  • Neapolitan: mixed short pasta shapes, red beans, fresh tomatoes, no meat

This week I made a modest quantity of the southern version’s recipe for us two. Overnight, I soaked four ounces of Rio Zape beans, a very tasty heirloom variety that I buy online from Rancho Gordo.
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Next day I drained them, added 1½ cups of fresh water, and set them on to simmer while I peeled, seeded, and chopped 2 big plum tomatoes, peeled and halved a garlic clove, chose a tiny dried hot red pepper, and measured out ¼ teaspoon of dried oregano.
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I sautéed those ingredients in olive oil, with salt and black pepper, for ten minutes
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then stirred the seasonings into the bean pot and let it go on simmering until the beans were tender. They took only about an hour, indicating that they were a very fresh batch. They also produced a rich, meaty aroma, for all that there wasn’t a speck of meat in with them. Off heat, the pot sat at the back of the stove all afternoon. (No point showing you a picture of that: the beans were all sunken under the liquid.)

As dinner time approached, I brought the pot to a boil and stirred in four ounces of miscela pasta – short pieces of many different shapes of dried pasta. In the old days, Neapolitan families kept all their broken and leftover bits of pasta – the miscela – for just these purposes. Nowadays we can buy such a mix.
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Slowly, the pasta pieces absorbed the liquid, swelled up, and began rising to visibility.
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This part of the cooking always needs frequent stirring, because beans and pasta both tend to stick to the bottom of the pot as the liquid is absorbed. In this case they also needed a little additional hot water to keep the sauce from over-thickening. You can make the dish as moist or dry as you choose: Tom likes it soupier than I do, so we negotiate the difference each time.
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Once the pasta is done, the pot needs to sit off heat, covered, for five minutes before serving. Then, at table, diners complete the dish to their taste with olive oil, salt, crushed red pepper, and grated pecorino Romano cheese.
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If you’ve never tasted it, you’ll hardly believe how rich and luscious a concoction these humble ingredients make. In Tom’s Neapolitan family, his father’s generation – 16 siblings – grew up on past’e fagiol’ and revered it all their lives.

Baked Cucumbers

Baked cucumbers? That sounded to me like a joke – as who should say, “Have some of this delicious broiled coleslaw.” Yet that cucumber dish does exist: I came across it in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, while looking for a different recipe. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about French cuisine, but I’d never heard of this.

Curious about it, I did a little research in my other classic French cookbooks. I found no fewer than five cooked cucumber recipes in Larousse Gastronomique and similar numbers in both Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine and La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. de Saint-Ange. By golly, you’re never too old to learn something!

Of course, I had to try Julia Child’s recipe. It was a simple enough procedure. I gathered my ingredients for half a recipe and set to work.
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I’d bought Kirby cukes, the kind we prefer for eating raw and making pickles. The first thing to do here was peel, halve, seed, and cut them up.
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I then tossed the pieces in a bowl with salt, sugar, and red wine vinegar and left them there for about an hour to draw out their excess water. This is an alternative to blanching, which (as I learned) all the other recipes call for. Julia says her way lets them retain more flavor.
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Once drained and dried, my cukes went into a baking dish, to be tossed with melted butter, freshly ground black pepper, a chopped scallion, and chopped fresh dill, all of which sounded appropriate and tasty.
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The baking dish went, uncovered, into a 375° oven for a little over an hour, until the cucumbers were tender but still holding their shape. They didn’t look as attractive coming out as they had going in.
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And I’m sorry to say they didn’t do much for us. You could hardly even tell the vegetables were cucumbers. Mostly they tasted of dill and a light vinegar tang. Not unpleasant, but not at all interesting.
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Possibly Kirbies were the wrong cukes to use? Julia doesn’t specify a kind. In any event, I think I’ll just go on enjoying my cucumbers either pickled or raw.

I’ve discovered a terrific stuffing for a pork shoulder roast. It’s made of apples, bacon, butter, mushrooms, onions, sage, a pinch of sugar and a touch of vinegar. The combination is from a recipe for a pork loin roast that I clipped from Saveur magazine several years ago and now have adapted for a piece of rolled and tied pork shoulder.

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There was a fair amount of preparation work to do for the stuffing: slice a medium onion, slice two ounces of mushrooms, chop a teaspoon of sage leaves, chop a thick slice of bacon; peel, core, and slice an apple, and toss the slices in a bowl with just a little sugar. Tom, my obliging knife man, did most of that work, leaving only the apple for me. He may have been thinking of the apple Eve gave Adam.

Well, that was fair enough. On to the cooking.

To begin, you crisp the bacon in a skillet, add the apples, and sauté them in the bacon fat until tender.
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Remove the apples and bacon to a bowl, melt a generous tablespoon of butter in the skillet, sauté the onions in it, add the mushrooms, and continue cooking until everything is tender. (The green bits you see below are scallions, which I used instead of yellow onions.)
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Raise heat, add two tablespoons of vinegar and stir until it evaporates. (The recipe calls for cider vinegar; I had sweet apple vinegar, which worked just as well.) Stir in the chopped sage, salt, and pepper.
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Finally, return the apples and bacon to the skillet, mix everything together, and set the pan aside to cool.
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For the recipe’s intended loin roast, a pocket is to be opened down the middle of each segment that will become a chop when the roast is carved, and as much of the stuffing as will fit is put in, with any excess being strewn around the meat in the roasting pan. For my piece of shoulder, I untied the strings, made one deep cut down the middle of the meat, filled the opening with all the stuffing, and retied the piece.
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I salted and peppered the meat, poured about half a cup of water in the roasting pan, and put it in a 350° oven for about two hours, basting occasionally. The little roast plumped up and browned beautifully . . .
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. . . though I must confess that it sliced rather messily.
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Nevertheless, it made for gorgeous eating: There was a wonderful exchange of flavors between the sweet, juicy pork and the varied medley of stuffing ingredients. This is a combination I look forward to making many times again.
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P.S. Jennifer, our dinner guest, looking on as Tom and I prepared to serve the meal, sneakily took a picture of me as I was taking a picture of the meat. She caught me leaning forward: I assure you my head and hands are not as much too big for the rest of my body as they appear here!
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