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Heading into this Memorial Day weekend, the weather was yet again unseasonably chilly, gray, and windy. The one good thing was that those autumnal conditions were ideal for the main dish at my upcoming dinner party: braised shoulder of boar. Marcassin – young wild boar – was the first true game dish Tom and I had eaten on our very first foray to France, way back when. I’d promised to make it for some francophile friends, and I wanted to get to it before the days became too hot for it to be enjoyable.

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raw shoulder

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This four-pound boneless hunk of protein had come from D’Artagnan, neatly encased in netting. It’s described as “truly wild boar” from Texas, the animal having fed on grass, roots, nuts, fruits, acorns, and grains – all of which contribute to the flavor of the meat. I’ve cooked boar a few times before, and I’ve found it always repays marination.

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marinade ingredients

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I’ve adapted my marinade from a recipe for Marcassin Ardennaise in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. It involves softening sliced carrots, onions, celery, shallots, and garlic in oil; adding red wine, peppercorns, juniper berries, cloves, and salt; and simmering for an hour or more, until the vegetables are soft.

The day before the dinner party, I made up the marinade and put the boar into it for 24 hours at room temperature, turning it over frequently. Early the next day I removed it, dried it, browned it in goose fat in a Creuset pot, and set it on a plate.

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shoulder browned

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I strained the marinade, saving both solids and liquids. The marinade vegetables went into the pot and the boar sat on top of them, with some of the marinating liquid and some broth and tomato paste, coming about a third of the way up the meat. It cooked gently, covered, for 3½ hours, until it was fully tender. Out of the pot once again, so the cooking liquid could be strained and lightly thickened with cornstarch to make gravy. Then the boar had only to be reheated in its gravy as dinnertime approached. I love dishes like this, that leave me free to exit the kitchen and enjoy a glass of bubbly with my guests.

Unfortunately for its appearance at the table, the meat partially fell apart when I removed the netting. And it was so tender it was impossible to slice neatly – Tom had to essentially tease it out into serving-size pieces.

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braised shoulder

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It wasn’t photogenic, but it tasted fine: strong, rich, mildly gamy. A potato-celeriac puree and roasted green beans made good accompaniments, as did a lovely 17-year-old Châteauneuf du Pape. And though we could have used a bit of heat in the apartment that evening, it was a very happy and inwardly warmed crew that consumed my “autumn” Memorial Day weekend dinner. (Just in time, too: The weather turned hot very soon thereafter.)

My birding trip in Spain was definitely not focused on gastronomy. All dinners were taken at the simple rural hotels where our group was staying, and lunches were at cafes and other modest eateries in villages along the birding routes. Menus were sometimes limited, with dishes selected in advance for the group by the local leader (and described for us in English, so I never got some of the Spanish names). Nevertheless, we encountered very good food in some of those places, including a few dishes that I hope to be able to recreate at home.

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Lunches were usually a large assortment of tapas for the whole table, ranging from salads to the ubiquitous fried squid. Here are a few of the interesting items. (Click to enlarge the images.)

tapas

Jamón Ibérico, the air-cured Iberian ham at left, is always a treat. The fried cuttlefish were even tastier than their close relatives, squid. Next, potato croquettes – a frequent tapa offering. The medium-sized garden snails, a delicious short-season specialty, appeared to have been cooked with oil, garlic, and smoked paprika. And the last dish on the right is grilled chipirones: very small squid.

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Frequent main courses at dinner included beautifully cooked fresh seafood:

seafood dishes

The tiny fried fish are fresh anchovies. Next, braised octopus. In the middle, a roasted whole choco, or large cuttlefish. More small fried fish, including tiny soles. Last, two tentacles of yet another octopus.

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There were also good, hearty meat and poultry dishes.

3 meat dishes

Left to right, a simple lamb stew with the Basque name Corderico al Txilindron; duck leg confit; and Codillo de cerdo. This last was mystifyingly translated for me as “elbow of pork”; close examination showed it to be a pork shank that had been halved lengthwise through the bone.

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We even came upon some surprisingly elegant and sophisticated preparations. At lunch one day, everyone in our group was served a large, richly eggy crepe filled with wild mushrooms and topped with something like a light Mornay sauce. It was marvelous.

crepe

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Another day, as a dinner appetizer Tom had “ravioli” made with rice papers instead of pasta, filled with a creamy mixture of pears and oveja cheese, topped with pesto, and served on a bed of ratatouille. An improbable combination, it seemed to me, but intriguing and very flavorful.

ravioli

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That same evening, my appetizer was a cake of spicy revolcona potatoes topped with a perfectly poached egg and surrounded by quickly sauteed Ibérico ham. That in itself was almost enough for a dinner!

revolcona

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Finally, the most noteworthy dessert I had in Spain was Torrija. This traditional sweet is a sort of hybrid of French toast and bread pudding, and this version came with a crunchy crème brûlée topping. Quite luscious.

torrija

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These last four dishes are the ones I’m determined to try making at home. If I succeed, you may be meeting them again in future posts.

Just home from Spain and without having set foot in a kitchen for almost three weeks, I was eager to get back to some adventures in cooking. A plump one-pound squab from D’Artagnan, which I had in the freezer, was an ideal candidate for my re-immersion. . ??????????????????????????????? . st angeAfter canvassing various cookbooks for recipes, I settled on Pigeon à la crapaudine from La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange. I can’t think why the French would regard “toad-style pigeon” as an attractive name (crapaud means toad). But then, neither is the word spatchcocked very pretty, and that’s what’s done to the bird in this preparation. Here’s my poor little squab after I’d cut out its spine, smashed it flat with a cleaver, twisted its legs around, and anchored them in a slit in the skin. . ??????????????????????????????? . It does look a bit like a toad here, and the resemblance became greater as the simple cooking went on. I brushed the bird with melted butter, dredged it with fine dry breadcrumbs, and set it on a moderately hot grill. (Madame urges cooking the squab over charcoal; I used the gas grill on my stovetop.) Flames started appearing almost immediately, as the butter ran and the bird’s own fat melted. . ??????????????????????????????? . After five minutes, when I’d brushed the top again with butter and turned the bird over, I feared it was going to be ruined when I saw how black the skin side had become. (Madame makes quite an issue of grilling squab on a gentle fire and coloring it very gradually. My bad!) . ??????????????????????????????? . I hadn’t used the grill in a long time and had forgotten how wildly it always flared up. Happily, the smoke alarm did not go off, and none of the neighbors across the street who might have seen the flames through the window called the fire department. So I kept on grilling, lowering the gas flame and never turning the skin side down again, for about 15 minutes in all. . ??????????????????????????????? . The squab still looked like a disaster, but when we ate it, it was excellent. The breast meat was very rosy – the color and texture of a rare lamb chop, and it even tasted a bit like one. The blackening on the crumb coating was hardly noticeable to the taste. In fact, my non-fowl-favoring husband declared it one of the best squab dishes he had ever eaten. Still, it was the ugliest good-tasting dish I’ve ever made. Ever.

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

 

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