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One of my most reliable first-course dishes, whether for family consumption or for guests, is an eggplant quiche. The recipe I use is different from – and to my mind better than – any other I’ve seen, even the one in From Julia Child’s Kitchen. Interestingly, the source of “my” recipe is a former collaborator of Child’s: Simone Beck, the third-listed author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Simca's CuisineBeck published her own book, Simca’s Cuisine, a decade after the two volumes of Mastering appeared. It’s a chatty, personal book, arranged by menus. Her eggplant quiche recipe is in a chapter called “A Carefree Luncheon,” and though I wouldn’t call it exactly a carefree recipe, for me the result is well worth the effort. What mainly makes this version different from other eggplant quiches is a complete absence of milk or cream, a near-absence of cheese, and a presence of tomato puree and bacon.

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The recipe starts by having you make and partially bake a pastry shell, using Simca’s own pâte brisée, which is made with flour, butter, oil, salt, and an egg yolk. It’s a very flavorful pastry, and I use it for many kinds of savory tarts. Before putting the pan in the oven, you brush the bottom with Dijon mustard and sprinkle it with grated Swiss cheese. For my palate, these two ingredients make a major contribution to the finished dish.

pastry shell

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Turning to the main ingredient: You peel a 1½-pound eggplant and cut it into ½-inch cubes. Spread them on paper towels or a cloth; salt them; after 15 minutes toss and salt them again; rinse and pat them dry.

eggplant cubes

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Next steps:

  • Sauté the eggplant cubes in a generous amount of oil (I always use olive), drain, and lightly season them with salt and pepper.
  • In the oil remaining in the pan, fry ¼ pound of bacon until crisp, and crumble it when cool.
  • Beat three eggs in a large bowl and add the eggplant, the bacon, 1½ cups of either Simca’s very elaborate provençal tomato purée or pureed Italian plum tomatoes (my usual choice), and two tablespoons each of chopped parsley and basil.
  • Fill the pastry shell with this mixture, sprinkle the top with more grated Swiss cheese, and bake for about 25 minutes.
  • Serve while warm, or reheat when ready to eat it.

Quite a bit of work there, it must be admitted. But what you get is an unusual and truly delicious treat, which has pleased everyone I’ve served it to.

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eggplant quiche

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Though I opened this post by calling this a first-course dish, Beloved Spouse and I also enjoy it by itself, for lunch or as a light supper.

Rearranging some bookshelves recently, I had to move my 19 volumes of Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano novels. Just looking at them made me hungry. The Sicilian dishes that the inspector consumes in every story make me want to sit down beside him and pick up a knife and fork. Failing that, I reached for my copy of Stefania Campo’s I Segreti della Tavola di Montalbano and browsed the book for recipes that I hadn’t yet tried.

montalbano cookbookThis time I liked one for involtini di melanzane. These are fried eggplant slices rolled around a filling of spaghetti dressed with tomato sauce, baked with a topping of more sauce and shavings of ricotta salata – a dish that the cookbook says contains all the flavors of Palermo. Montalbano eats these involtini in a short story that hasn’t yet been translated into English: “Un Caso di Omonimia,” which my dictionary tells me means “A Coincidence of Names.”

I found the entire Italian text of the story online, and with help from my friends Betty and Livio, who are knowledgeable in both Italian and Sicilian (much of the narrative is in dialect), I managed to make out enough to understand the dining situation.

After a big fight with Livia, Montalbano goes to spend the Christmas holidays with an old friend in Palermo. Regrettably, his friend’s wife is a terrible cook. One day, after walking around the city feeling melancholy, he decides to console himself by eating at a tiny osteria that he patronizes whenever he’s in Palermo. The proprietor-waiter is Don Peppe; in the kitchen is his wife, who “knows how to make things the way God wants them.” There, Montalbano “with eyes half closed from the pleasure, scarfed down a dish of involtini di melanzane con la pasta e la ricotta salata.

That was his first course. He never gets to his second course that evening – but you don’t need to hear the whole plot of the mystery. Let me tell you about the dish as I made it.

The recipe called for three “big” eggplants, and of course what’s big in Italy isn’t necessarily big in America. For the half quantity, supposedly serving two, that I was making I’d chosen one large, long, straight eggplant so I’d have slices big enough to wrap. Beloved Spouse did his usual expert knife work to produce them. I salted the slices and set them in colanders for half an hour.

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salting

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At that point the recipe said “then fry them” – no details. I dried my slices with a linen cloth, pressing as much liquid out of them as I could. I fried them in shallow olive oil until they browned a bit and felt soft enough to curve around a filling but not so soft as to fall apart. Needless to say, they absorbed a fair amount of oil: So much the better – or the worse, depending on your view of olive oil.

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frying

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For the filling, half the indicated amount of spaghetti would have been a little over five ounces. That seemed like a lot, so I cooked less and dressed it with my own simple tomato sauce with garlic and basil. Since I had seven eggplant slices to fill, I slid the spaghetti onto a prep board and divided it into seven little swirls. My eggplant slices accepted all the spaghetti and curved comfortably, if messily, around it.

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rolled

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Then it was just a matter of ladling a little more sauce on the rolls and shaving ricotta salata on top before putting the dish briefly in a hot oven. The recipe would have wanted seven ounces of ricotta. That seemed like an enormous amount, so I used much less, doing it just by eyeball. That was a mistake. I had sheep-milk ricotta, which was very flavorful but dense and dry, and it didn’t melt or even spread in the oven. I should have grated it and used a lot more.

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served

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Even so, the dish was excellent. The flavors complemented each other in the same way as a good dish of pasta alla Norma does. But it was far too much for two first-course servings: We couldn’t possibly finish it all. I’m pretty sure Montalbano could have, though!

 

I can’t imagine my pantry without dried beans. They’re an all-around useful, nourishing, delicious culinary staple. I always have several kinds on hand, and this week I added a new, extraordinarily good variety to my collection – of which, broadening the definition just a little to include pulses, I already had six kinds on my pantry shelf:

L to R: Santa Maria pinquitos, chickpeas, Midnight blacks, Castelluccio lentils, yellow Indian lentils, Domingo rojo reds

L to R: Santa Maria pinquitos, Umbrian chickpeas, Midnight blacks, Castelluccio lentils, yellow Indian lentils, Domingo rojo reds

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ChiliSanta Maria pinquitos are my all-time favorite bean for chili. I’ve written enthusiastically about them before, here and here. They’re small but they can hold their own among any strong or spicy flavors.

 

 

servedI love the flavor of chickpeas, and I use them in many guises, some of which I’ve written about here and here. These are an artisanal variety from Umbria.

 

 

black bean soup 2Midnight is a robust black turtle bean, which I usually use in Mexican dishes, such as here and here. They make especially good soups.

 

 

pasta with lentilsCastelluccio lentils are the best lentils I’ve ever tasted. A favorite way to serve them is in my own pasta with lentils recipe, and I’ve also written about them here and here.

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Yellow Indian lentils are actually skinned and split mung beans. I keep them for making moong dal, a mild, pleasant side dish in Indian meals.

Domingo rojo is a dark red bean that I bought last fall from Rancho Gordo. It’s supposed to be especially good for red beans and rice. I’ll be trying it one day soon.

CassouletNormally I also have white beans in the pantry: Great northerns or marrows, for cassoulets and plain American baked beans, but I’ve already used up this winter’s supply of those. And once I brought back from France some Coco de Paimpol, which is probably the world’s best cassoulet bean.

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SolfinosAnd now I have a new treasure to add to my collection: Solfino beans, an ancient variety from Italy’s Marches region. These are a very rare, pale yellow heirloom bean. I’d tasted them years ago when they were briefly being grown in Tuscany under the name Zolfino, but apparently they didn’t do well there and almost went extinct.

There’s now one artisanal grower of them in the Marches, back where they originated, and when I found some in a local specialty shop, I snatched up a bag. The back label gives a whole history of the variety: fragile, difficult to grow, picky about soil and water, low-yielding, requiring mostly hand tending.

All that makes them ghastly expensive (I paid $17.95 for 500 grams), but they are extraordinarily good. I prepared my precious Solfinos very simply, in order to really taste the bean itself: gently boiled with just a little garlic, fresh sage, and olive oil.

solfino 2

I served them dressed with nothing but extra-virgin olive oil and salt. That was all they needed to bring out their subtle, rich, warm, and yet delicate flavor – hard to describe but heavenly to taste.

solfino 3

 

Risotto Pancakes

When you love to cook, and you’re cooking only for two, it can be hard to reduce recipes to make small enough quantities. So you tend to have a lot of high-quality leftovers in the refrigerator. Risotto is a good case in point. Beloved Spouse and I are fond of risotto, but no matter how hard I try, I usually make more than we can eat at a single meal. Depending on the additional ingredients, most risotti can be reheated, but they can lose much of their original charm. And I really hate to throw away still-usable food.

goldsteinImagine my pleasure, then, when I found Risotto Saltato – a recipe honestly labeled as being for leftover risotto – in Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations. The author takes a lot of California-style liberties with classic Mediterranean dishes, but this one looked pretty straightforward, with one exception. The cooking instructions assume that you won’t have already-made risotto on hand, so they start by having you boil raw rice. That is not a true risotto technique, but I thought I’d try it anyway.

I stirred ½ cup of short-grain Italian rice into ¾ cup of salted water and cooked covered until the rice had absorbed all the water – about 10 minutes. Off heat, I stirred in an egg, 3½ tablespoons of grated parmigiano, and ½ cup of finely chopped toasted hazelnuts – the nuts being one of three optional fillings given for the pancakes. I spread that mixture on a platter and put it in the refrigerator to cool.

rice 1

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The next step was to form little pancakes. This wasn’t as easy as the recipe made it seem. My mixture was nice and sticky, but what it mostly wanted to stick to was my hands. I had to keep dipping them in cold water to persuade the rice to let go. Goldstein cautions not to pack them tightly or else the cooked cakes will be leaden; OK, but there’s a fine line between not-too-tight and so-loose-it-falls-apart. I managed it, though I had to leave the cakes pretty thick for their size.

rice 2

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After they had another rest in the refrigerator, I sauteed the pancakes in olive oil. They were still frangible and hard to turn; in fact, one completely fell apart. They also took much longer to brown than I expected, and they did so quite unevenly.

rice 3

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Despite these tribulations, the pancakes were good. They tasted strongly of the hazelnuts – not surprising, since the nuts were almost the only flavoring ingredient. In the future, I’ll make these only when I have actual leftover risotto, both to provide a more interesting palette of flavors and to curtail the cakes’ tendency to fall apart. For the flavors, a previously cooked risotto would have had, at a minimum, sauteed onions, oil or butter, and broth. And for the texture, I’ve read that when short-grain Italian rice is briefly sauteed before the slow addition of liquid, the rice’s starch is activated in a way that just boiling doesn’t do. That’s how you get the creamy texture of a true risotto.

So I look forward to trying these pancakes with a proper risotto. I hope that will add a new item to my culinary repertory and solve a common leftover problem.

Saucier's ApprenticeThis week’s recipe is a sort of Cinderella story. The main character is a humble, homely cut of meat, which is dressed so elegantly that it becomes fit for a prince. Appropriately, the quasi-magical recipe is from Raymond Sokolov’s The Saucier’s Apprentice. I’ve had the book for a very long time, but I’ve very rarely cooked from it. It’s subtitled “A Modern Guide to Classic French Sauces for the Home,” and those sauces are immensely painstaking and time-consuming.

The recipe for Breast of Lamb Shepherdess Style calls for a base sauce of jus de veau. That separate recipe starts with splintering 18 pounds of veal bones with a cleaver and cooking them with 10 other ingredients in stages that take about 12 hours to complete. I’ve never done that, but once long ago Beloved Spouse and I spent the better part of three days making Sokolov’s demi-glace, which is a closely related sauce, some of which we used for the lamb breast recipe when we made it then – and remember as indeed spectacular.

The dish came to mind again last week as a good choice for our Easter dinner. I was encouraged by the fact that it’s no longer necessary to start splintering veal bones for it; I could buy veal demi-glace. That helped, but it didn’t make the rest of the recipe a breeze. I did the first stage a whole day in advance, using two pieces of lamb breast from my freezer, left over from a different meal.

lamb breast

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I had to braise the lamb with sliced carrots and onions, garlic, and an herb bouquet, first on top of the stove with two small doses of diluted demi-glace, demiglacereducing each to a glaze; then in the oven with a larger amount of diluted demi-glace. The demi-glace I purchased turned out to be very disappointing: far thinner and less flavorful than the Sokolov version; not even as rich as Beloved Spouse’s homemade stock. I skipped the dilution and used much more demi-glace than the recipe called for.

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After 1½ hours, the lamb was fully tender.

braised

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I took it out of the pot, let it cool under a heavy weight, and put it in the refrigerator overnight.

Next morning, I had to debone the lamb, trim off the fat, and slice it into ½” strips. Teasing the bones out without tearing the meat was more difficult than I recall from the previous time. Also there was a lot of interstitial fat that couldn’t be removed without the strips’ trying to fall apart. Beloved Spouse did his very best knife work for me, but the result was unprepossessing.

strips

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Then came the final stage: the elegant clothing of my Cinderella strips. I dipped each one in melted butter and coated it in a mixture of mushrooms, which I’d minced and squeezed as for making duxelles, and fine breadcrumbs.

coated

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With an additional drizzle of melted butter, they went under a broiler just until browned. Alongside I served a crisp potato galette and green peas sautéed with shallots and minced mushrooms. Tom graced the Easter table with one of his two precious bottles of 2005 de Voguë Chambolle-Musigny premier cru.

served

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The wine was superb – glorious. The lamb, not so much. It was decent, but not the brilliant dish we both remembered from long ago. A bit dry, a bit chewy, a bit coarse. I’m not sure what went wrong this time. Maybe, as Chief Dan George said in Little Big Man, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Apple Crumble

Apple Crumble is not a dessert that has ever been in my repertoire. If I thought about it at all, I’d probably have assumed it was something one would learn in a Girl Scout troop’s cooking class. But I recently came across a recipe for it in a novel I was reading on my Kindle called Lord James Harrington and the Winter Mystery.

Lord James HarringtonI didn’t really like the book: It’s one of the “cosy” variety, and I found the writing pedestrian and several of the characters ridiculous. A lot of eating and drinking goes on in it, which I generally approve of, but with far too many sweets being served and glasses of cream sherry taken as aperitifs. When, however, Lord James makes his grandmother’s famous apple crumble for a village fête, I was mildly interested, and when I found the recipe printed at the end of the book, I decided to try it.

I’m glad I did: It’s a nice little dessert. I almost said “easy as pie,” but it’s actually much easier than pie. I’ve now made it a few times, always successfully. Here’s what it takes for two to four servings.

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You peel, core, and chop up two apples, put them in an unbuttered baking dish, and top it with two tablespoons of sugar, one clove, and a sprinkling of cinnamon.

apples 1

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Rub together three ounces of flour and three tablespoons of butter to make crumbs; stir in two more tablespoons of sugar; spread that mixture over the apples, and sprinkle on more cinnamon.

apples 2

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Bake at 400° for 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

apples 3

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I rate this apple crumble highly on the pleasure-produced to work-involved ratio. With minimal ingredients it produces classic apple dessert flavors. You can use any kind of apple, throw the ingredients together, let the dish sit until needed, bake it in advance and reheat it later. Once cooked, it even keeps well in the refrigerator for a day or two. Leftovers make a nice breakfast. This is as close as one gets to a culinary no-brainer.

Tuscan Pot Roast

Last Wednesday the featured article in the NY Times food section was about a midwestern restaurant chef’s elaborate pot roast. I found it strange, because in the photos, text, and recipe, the beef was accompanied by an array of root vegetables. When I make a pot roast, the roast is alone in the pot. With vegetables, I’d call the dish a stew or a braise.

My curiosity piqued, I looked up pot roast recipes in several of my cookbooks, as well as online. By golly, they all included vegetables! The sole exception was my copy of the 1937 America’s Cook Book, the only cookbook my mother ever owned. Its recipe for pot roast is the one that graced our family table when I was growing up: just beef, salt, pepper, flour, and rendered suet, with an optional version including some water. Replicating that simple dish kept me happy for many years. Then I discovered a different but also vegetable-less approach in Italy and began making Tuscan Pot Roast, a recipe I developed and published in The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.

That train of thought a few days later took me to the freezer, where I pulled out a nice two-pound piece of eye of chuck to defrost for dinner the next night. Eye of chuck is our household’s favorite cut of beef for stews, pot roasts, and bollito misto. It’s a loose-textured meat, well marbled and very flavorful, but it requires long, slow cooking to become tender and especially to melt its central tendon to succulence.

raw eye of chuck

This is the same cut the newspaper’s featured chef uses. He calls it paleron; the article says midwestern butchers call it flat iron roast; elsewhere it’s apparently called top blade roast. Hereabouts, it’s eye of chuck.

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For my recipe, I put the beef into a heavy pot with butter, olive oil, two cloves of garlic, four sage leaves, salt and pepper.

first cooking

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Under very low heat it cooks, covered, for an hour, getting turned over every 10 or 15 minutes. Then I uncover it, raise the heat somewhat, pour on half a cup of red wine and boil it briskly until it’s nearly evaporated.

adding wine

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Lower the heat again, cover, and cook until the meat is tender, usually about another half hour. Just before serving I take out the beef and keep it warm while I remove the garlic and sage and deglaze the pan with half a cup of broth. Blended with the meat essences left in the pot, that makes a rich, dense, dark gravy that doesn’t need any other thickener.

slicing

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This pot roast has to be sliced fairly thick so it won’t fall apart. Sometimes it falls apart anyway, it’s so tender. There’s just one more thing I’ll explain about the photo above: As a concession to nutritional “science,” my published recipe says to carefully defat the sauce before pouring it over the meat. When it’s just for Beloved Spouse and myself, I don’t do that. That golden rim of liquid fat makes the gravy even more luscious for spooning over mashed potatoes or mopping up with crusty bread.

All right then, I’ll go to hell.  I understand the company is more interesting there anyhow.

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