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Food writing is full of stories about beans these days. And beleaguered home-sheltering cooks seem to be paying attention. I read that the California heirloom bean supplier Rancho Gordo received more than 3,000 online orders in two days last month. None of them was from me: There are always several bags of Rancho Gordo beans in my pantry. This family likes beans, especially some of Rancho Gordo’s many varieties.

That bit of news prompted me to pull out Heirloom Beans, the Rancho Gordo cookbook written by Steve Sando (who owns the company and is himself a fanatic bean cook), and look for a new bean dish to make. I found a recipe there for our very favorite bean variety, the Santa Maria Pinquito.
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I chose to ignore the tri-tip component of the recipe, both for lack of barbecuing capability and for interest in something simpler alongside the beans. Tri-tip is a sirloin cut, so I substituted a pair of big sirloin burgers, some of which we usually have in the freezer. We shape them from the delicious, freshly ground sirloin we get from Ottomanelli, our butcher. They can taste even beefier than a steak.

My half pound of Pinquitos had been soaked overnight and were ready to cook.
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I moved them to a pot with their soaking water, plus extra cold water to cover generously, and left them to simmer for an hour while I prepared their seasonings.
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When the beans were just beginning to soften, I stirred in the chopped onion and garlic, dry mustard, Spanish smoked paprika, tomato paste, salt, and pepper, and simmered for another 45 minutes, adding small amounts of hot water as needed, until they were tender.

They came out looking plain enough . . .

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. . . but Santa Maria Pinquitos are truly great beans: They hold their shape well when cooked, are richly flavorful in their own right, and are happy to absorb additional flavors from their surroundings. Which this batch certainly did. Tom, the chile maker of the household, swears by Pinquitos for his own complex concoctions. But they’re equally a pleasure to have, as we did that evening, on an everyday dinner plate alongside the bloody rare sautéed burgers.
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That may be simple cooking, but it’s fine eating, especially alongside an eight-year-old Ridge Zinfandel.

I don’t want to write about the coronavirus. Yes, it’s the most momentous thing in our daily lives now. But this blog is about cooking, one of the very few almost-normal activities left to us. So please don’t consider me heartless if my posts don’t acknowledge that we’re all in the shadow of a plague.
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Am I the only devoted home cook in the western world who didn’t know there were such things as savory bread puddings? I’ve long been an enthusiast for dessert bread puddings, though I came late to the appreciation of them. But savory ones? I just made my very first.

Looking in my cookbooks for new recipes to blog about, I was struck by one for Spinach and Roquefort Bread Pudding in Nick Maglieri’s Bread. Beside looking exotic to me, it seemed to be essentially a recipe framework, with many suggestions for variations of both vegetable and cheese – even additions of meat. The cheese part especially interested me because in the refrigerator I had a fair amount of gorgonzola dolce al cucchiaio – the very soft, creamy version of that Italian blue cheese – which needed to be used.

So, after acquiring a package of frozen spinach, I set out to try a scaled-down version of the dish. Half the pack of spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry; slices of my own whole wheat sandwich loaf, cubed; the gorgonzola, milk, an egg, some minced onion, butter, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
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While the bread cubes were toasting briefly in a moderate oven, I sautéed the onion and spinach in the butter.
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Assuming the cheese would be Roquefort, the recipe next said to crumble it into the spinach pan and optionally add heavy cream. My gorgonzola was too soft and moist to be crumbled, but it melted down readily as a stand-in for both Roquefort and cream.

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When the bread cubes were toasted, I put them in a bowl, whisked together the milk, egg, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and poured it over them. The recipe actually wanted only half the milk mixture to go in at this point, with the rest left to pour onto the pudding in its baking pan. But my bread looked as if it needed more moisture, so I gave it the whole dose.
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Last, I added the spinach-cheese mixture to the bread bowl and blended everything together.
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I transferred the uncooked pudding to a buttered soufflé pan and baked it at 350° for almost an hour, until the center tested done. It was supposed to have browned on top, but mine didn’t. Perhaps it would have if I’d poured the second half of the milk mixture over the top, and it hadn’t fully soaked in, but I wanted the bread to be really soft.

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As you can see, I should’ve used a smaller pan! However, no problem: We ate the pudding for a simple supper, accompanied by sautéed red frying peppers.
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The dish was pleasant enough, though very mild. For our taste it would have been improved by a more assertive cheese or a stronger-tasting vegetable: frozen spinach doesn’t contribute much. The bright acidity of the peppers provided a very welcome contrast of flavor and texture.

But, as noted above, this recipe (which is also available online) can be a framework for the cook’s own creativity, and I may well try it with some variations in the future. There are many combinations that should make satisfying simple meals.

 

Amid the ever-increasing coronavirus threat, Tom and I are mostly spending the days in our apartment, venturing out only briefly for fresh air and fresh produce. All that time indoors provides many opportunities for cooking – but also for making culinary mistakes. The other day, careless recipe reading made me nearly ruin a hearty lentil soup.

I had a supply of good brown lentils from Italy, so I thought it would be nice to use some in a soup that would be different from the version I usually make. In Michele Scicolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes, I found Lentil and Fennel Soup, a combination I’d never tried before. Bulb fennel is still available in my neighborhood, so that was an easy choice.

I assembled chopped ingredients for half a recipe’s worth: fennel, carrot, onion, potato, and tomato; plus small ditalini pasta and, of course, the lentils.
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The first instruction was to put lentils, fennel, carrot, onion, and potato into a soup pot and cover them with an inch of cold water. That actually wasn’t as simple as it sounds. As soon as I started adding water, the carrots and onions floated to the top, where they congregated and obscured the water level.
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A trivial thing, of course: hardly a problem there. The flotilla did cause me to add more water than called for, but I was sure it could be boiled off during the cooking. We haven’t yet come to my real gaffe.

The vegetables simmered for 30 minutes, and then I was to add the tomatoes along with salt, pepper, and olive oil, and continue cooking for 20 minutes. There was also an instruction to add hot water as needed to keep the lentils covered with liquid. That puzzled me, because I had no need for it. After 20 minutes, my lentils were still barely visible, hunkering down among the other vegetables, and the soup was looking pretty thin. I knew I hadn’t added that much extra water.

Also, it didn’t have the good aroma of a lentil soup that was close to being done. A horrible premonition overtook me. Had I not used enough lentils? Checking back to the recipe’s ingredient list, I was aghast to see I’d measured out only half as much I should have.

This was not the first time I’d done such a thing. Especially when I’m scaling down a recipe and calculating quantities for a number of items to be treated similarly, I can get into a sort of rhythm: half a cup of this, half a cup of that, quarter cup of the next thing . . . This time, I’d failed to note that the quantity of lentils I needed was not half a cup but half a pound.

Arrggh! How to salvage it? The lentils in the pot were already tender, and the only remaining cooking to be done was 15 minutes for the ditalini. But the soup would have been a watery gruel if left as it was. So I threw in another half a cup of raw lentils and kept the pot simmering for another half an hour. Thankfully, after the final 15 minutes for the pasta, the new lentils had absorbed all the excess liquid and were done. Whew!
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And it was a very good soup, a perfect antidote to damp, chilly, winterish weather, and better than I deserved, for my carelessness. I’m still surprised that neither batch of lentils suffered at all from their respectively too long and too short cooking times. But neither Tom’s nor my palate could detect a difference.

My only remaining regret is that the fennel, which was the main reason I chose the recipe, wasn’t very prominent in the final flavor. I still have a bag of those good lentils left. If ever I ever get over my chagrin enough to make this soup again, I may double the quantity of fennel – that is, assuming I can manage to read the other recipe instructions properly!
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At a restaurant recently I had the best simple duck breast I’ve ever eaten. The rich, rosy meat was beautifully tender. I’d given up on cooking duck breasts, delicious as they are, because mine were always uncomfortably chewy. That restaurant dish induced me to try them once more.

I often buy duck legs from Quattro’s, an excellent poultry farm with a stand at my local Greenmarket, which has continued to be active all through the winter, so this week I went there for a pair of breasts instead.
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Now to find a recipe that I couldn’t mess up! My cookbook collection didn’t offer much in the way of uncomplicated duck breast preparations, but the index of Alfred Portale’s Simple Pleasures sent me to a recipe for squab that had duck breast as a recommended variation.

A simple dish indeed it was: Its lengthy title, Pan-roasted Squab with Butter-braised Savoy Cabbage and Green Apples, names all its ingredients except salt, pepper, caraway seeds, and olive oil. I especially liked the idea of combining the duck with cabbage and apples, since they’re among the few kinds of local produce available at this time of year.

So, on to the great attempt, with hope springing anew in my breast. To start, I shredded four cups’ worth of Savoy cabbage, put it in a large sauté pan with two tablespoons of melted butter, and sprinkled it with salt, pepper, and half a teaspoon of crushed caraway seeds.
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While the cabbage cooked gently for 15 minutes, I peeled, cored, and diced a large apple. The recipe called for a Granny Smith, but I had Winesaps in my fruit bowl, which are equally good for holding their shape in cooking – and once the fruit is peeled, who can tell whether the apple was green or red? I added the apple cubes to the sauté pan and cooked it for another five minutes.
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At this point the recipe wanted me to stir in one more tablespoon of butter, transfer the mixture to a serving platter, and cover it to keep warm while I cooked the duck breasts. That seemed impractical to me, and certainly not what a restaurant chef like Portale would do. So, after adding the butter I just covered the pan and moved it to the back of the stove, for brief reheating before serving. Worked just fine.

I salted, peppered, and cooked the duck breasts the way the recipe said to cook squabs: in another sauté pan over low heat in a tablespoon of olive oil; first, skin side down for six minutes, then on the other side for four minutes. That time turned out to be just right for rare meat, though not long enough to render out all the fat under the skin.
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When the duck was done, I spread a bed of the reheated cabbage and apple on each dinner plate and topped it with a breast, partially sliced open.
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The flavor combination was wonderful, all I could have wished for: a rich, intriguing mélange of meat, fruit, and vegetable sweetnesses. But – you can probably guess it – the duck itself was still pretty chewy – not tough, but definitely chewy. Curses, foiled again!

But the combined flavors were so good we didn’t care. We both have good teeth, and this time the reward fully repaid the extra jaw exercise. I’ll have to try this recipe again, leaving the duck longer over extremely gentle heat, to try to persuade its fat to rend more completely and its muscle not to clench. Whether I succeed or not – tender duck breasts, like moist pork chops, may be my Waterloo – I can be sure the result will taste just fine.

Tom and I can’t let any winter go by without having at least one dinner of tripe. Not many of the friends with whom we regularly dine back and forth can match our fondness for that humble and, admittedly, bizarre cut of beef, so we never force them to meet it at our dinner table. Tant pis for them, we say to ourselves.

Hence, when Tom came home from the butcher’s one day recently with three pounds of honeycomb tripe – looking very like the cow’s stomach that it is – we knew it was ours alone to enjoy.
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When it comes to tripe and other innard dishes, you just have to relax your aesthetic standards.

I have several good, reliable recipes for tripe. I’ve written posts about some of them in past years, e.g., here and here. But since my plan for this blog in 2020 is to focus on previously untried recipes from my current cookbook collection, here was a good opportunity to find something different to do with the tripe.

After checking many of my books, I found a recipe I hadn’t made before in Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking. (I know she later combined her two “classic” volumes into one, but I have the original two.) It wasn’t very different from a recipe of hers called Trippa alla Parmigiana that I knew from the first volume but this one, Trippa e Fagiole, she says is particularly favored in the bean-loving regions of Tuscany and Veneto.

While the two recipes have almost identical ingredients, there are variations in proportions and handling that made me curious. Over the years, I’ve encountered several instances of two Italian recipes that looked much the same but came out quite unlike each other. And this new one of course had beans, which the earlier one didn’t. Definitely worth a try – especially since, for us, a winter without beans is as unthinkable as a winter without tripe.

The first step in the new recipe was to precook 2 pounds of tripe for 20 minutes in boiling water with a carrot, a celery stalk, and an onion. The vegetables were then to be discarded, which seemed like a waste to me: How much could they contribute in so little time? But since I had three pounds of tripe on hand and needed only one pound for the half-recipe amount I’d be making, I precooked it all as directed and put two-thirds away in the freezer. Thus cannily getting triple value from the vegetables. Hah!

Once drained and cooled, my tripe had to be cut into ¼-inch wide strips of any desired length – a little different from the other recipe’s specific size requirements, though the quantity of tripe was the same in both. Tom did the cutting for me with his usual aplomb. He also very finely chopped ⅓ cup each of fresh carrot, celery, and onion, and cut up a big garlic clove. Again, some differences in cut size and quantity from the other recipe.

The onions sautéed briefly in butter and olive oil before the carrot, celery, garlic, rosemary, and parsley joined them to cook for a few more minutes. (Why the onions alone first? I don’t know. They were supposed to turn “faintly golden,” but mine never do. I’m sure all the vegetables could have gone in at once with no harm.)
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Then came the tripe. I tossed everything together so the tripe was well coated with the oil and vegetables, raised the heat, stirred in ½ cup of white wine, and cooked until the liquid had evaporated.
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The last things to add were salt, pepper, 1½ cups of chopped canned plum tomatoes with their juices, and a cup of good homemade meat-and-vegetable broth.
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The covered pot went into a 350° oven for about 3 hours. Checking from time to time, I found it needed a little hot water toward the end to keep the tripe moist. All told, this dish had more wine and less tomato than the first-volume recipe had.

Perhaps you’re now wondering what happened to the beans? Their moment is coming.

In the morning, I’d soaked and cooked ¾ pound of dried white beans in plain water and set them aside. When the tripe was done and out of the oven, the drained beans went into the pot, which got a final simmering of 10 minutes on a stove burner.
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At serving time, I stirred ½ cup of freshly grated parmigiano cheese into the tripe and beans. (The other recipe wanted ¾ cup).
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Well, it was delicious tripe. We thoroughly enjoyed it. And the beans had taken on a remarkable amount of flavor from their brief fling with the other ingredients. But after all my meticulously noting of the subtle differences between the two recipes, I have to say this tripe dish was remarkably like its predecessor.

A suspicious person might wonder if Hazan had varied the details deliberately, to make a standard preparation seem something distinctive and create a “new” recipe for her second book. Or, more charitably, we might say the comparison goes to show how a good, sturdy, traditional recipe can provide opportunities for a lot of leeway in its execution. A useful thing for any cook to remember!

1917 Applesauce Cake

I’m not much of a cake baker. When I was growing up, any cake my mother made came from a commercial cake mix box, so I never acquired any of the skills. (She was a good pie maker, though, so I did learn that from her.) The few cakes I do make tend to be things like this one, which I wrote about here a few years ago: a very basic batter topped with fresh fruit before baking.

About two years ago, intending to expand my baking repertoire, I bought a copy of Anne Byrn’s American Cake. I couldn’t resist its subtitle: “From colonial gingerbread to classic layer, the stories and recipes behind more than 125 of our best-loved cakes.” Ever since, alas, I’ve mainly used it as a dream book: turning pages to admire the gorgeous big color photographs and reading about cake making history and techniques; but hardly ever venturing to make something from it.

Now I’ve stepped up to the (cake) plate – albeit with one of the book’s simpler recipes. Byrn’s 1917 Applesauce Cake is a model of wartime frugality. It has very little butter, no eggs, and not too much sugar, relying on the natural sweetness of apples and raisins. Nevertheless, it makes a hearty, moist cake with plenty of flavor. Frugality should always taste this good.
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The first step in the instructions was to cream the butter and sugar. Beating a mere two tablespoons of softened butter into a cup of sugar produced something more like a feathery fluff than a cream, but I hoped that would be all right. It was.
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The dry ingredients are two cups of flour and small quantities of salt, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. The raisins you see here have been tossed with a little flour, which the recipe footnote informed me keeps them from sinking as the cake bakes. The applesauce, totally unsweetened, I made from two big Winesap apples.
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I was a bit surprised to see baking soda alone as the leavening agent. I make scones, muffins, and quick breads fairly often, and whenever a recipe calls for baking soda rather than baking powder, there’s always buttermilk or yogurt for acidity. I guess the applesauce serves that purpose here.

I let my heavy-duty mixer stir the applesauce into the sugar-butter fluff, then the dry ingredients, last the raisins. The thick batter went into a buttered baking pan.
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The cake was to bake at 350° for 30 to 35 minutes. Mine took a little longer than that. It came out with a slight depression in the center. That was probably because the test for doneness was whether the top springs back when lightly pressed in the middle, and I had to do that three times, maybe with too much pressure. I usually test baked things with a skewer. No real harm done, though.
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This is the kind of cake I can manage: no layers, no icing, no decoration – just slice and serve. And it was fine: nothing that’s going to revolutionize my life, but just plain good. I want to call it a friendly cake. Not too sweet, not too spicy, nicely moist and gently fruity from the apple and raisin. It loved being served with a topping of crème fraiche, and I’m sure it would like whipped cream too, but it was just as pleasant on its own. It even went well with the white Rioja we’d been drinking with our dinner. You can’t ask for much more than that from an austerity-rations, wartime dessert.
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Moo Pad Tua Fak Yaw

You might think some computer virus had ridiculously scrambled the words of my title above. But no: That’s the name of a new-to-me Thai dish that I made this week. I found the recipe in The Original Thai Cookbook, by Jennifer Brennan. A 1981 paperback, with much interesting historical, cultural, and culinary information about Thailand, it bills itself as “the first, complete, authentic, Thai cookbook published in America.”

The recipe’s English title is Fried Pork and Long Beans. I’d have given it a name with a different emphasis, because (a) it’s not what we in the West mean by frying but stir-frying, (b) it uses as much shrimp as pork, and (c) the beans are definitely the largest component. So, Stir-fried Green Beans with Pork and Shrimp. By any name, it’s a good dish and very easy to make.
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Acknowledging the limited availability of Chinese “long beans” in American markets, the recipe promptly allows using conventional green beans, which I did. And, as is truly essential for the speed of stir-frying, I measured, prepped, and set out all my ingredients before beginning to cook. In addition to the shrimp, beans, and pork, here’s garlic, nam pla (Thailand’s ubiquitous fish sauce), granulated sugar, freshly ground black pepper, and cooking oil.
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Into the hot, oiled wok went first the garlic, just long enough to color; next the pork, for a few minutes to sear and seal.
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At that point I had to make a change in the recipe’s stir-frying sequence. The shrimp were to have gone in next, for one minute, and finally the long beans, for only two minutes. I knew that wouldn’t be enough time for my green beans to soften, so I tossed them in with the browning pork and gave them three more minutes together before adding the shrimp.
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Even my shrimp took more than one minute to lose their translucency. No size was specified for them, so possibly mine were larger than anticipated by the recipe. However, they still didn’t take long, and I was soon able to stir in the fish sauce, sugar, and pepper to finish the dish. I must admit, the green beans were still almost raw – very firm and squeaky – but that really wasn’t too bad.  In fact, it may have been ethnically authentic. They made a nice textural contrast with the other ingredients.
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What really completed the dish was the nam pla. On its own, this liquid from salted and fermented anchovies, much like the garum of ancient Rome, is extremely pungent – not to say stinky. But mixing with other ingredients here moderated its intensity and delivered a pleasing dose of umami, giving the dish a deliciously different set of flavors from my more customary Western cooking style. I must try it in other Thai recipes.