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Eels are not to everybody’s taste. Their snakelike appearance and alleged insalubrious habits may well be off-putting. When, as a weekend fisherman, Beloved Spouse once inadvertently caught an eel, we found it repulsive to handle, difficult to dispatch, and proverbially hard to skin. But eels can make delicious eating – e.g., smoked, grilled, or in sushi.

One of the Long Island seafood sellers in my Greenmarket has had a fairly regular supply of small eels this summer, very fresh, neatly beheaded, gutted, and skinned – all the nasty work done for us. I’ve bought them twice already.

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Anguille alla Romana

Eels 1.

del riccio romaFor these first two, six-ouncers, I used a recipe for Eels Roman-style from a cookbook I bought long ago in Italy called Le Ricette della mia Cucina Romana. I softened chopped spring onion and parsley in olive oil in a terracotta pan, then floured and browned the cut-up eels in it. Well, sort of browned them – they didn’t change color much.

Next I sprinkled the eels with salt, pepper, and two tablespoons of white wine. As soon as the wine had evaporated, I poured on plain hot water and let them cook covered for about 20 minutes. The eels’ own gelatin turned the liquid into a light, creamy sauce.

in pan 1

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Then I added a cup of blanched fresh shell peas and a little more hot water, and continued cooking for another 20 minutes.

in pan 2

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That was it. A very simple, very satisfying dish. The eels didn’t taste at all fishy, but not quite meaty either. People tend to describe eel as rich, sweet, and oily, like blowfish, monkfish or octopus. To me, it almost tasted like pork. It made a good combination with the peas and was perfectly tender: The flesh came easily off the spine bones.

plated

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Catigot d’Anguilles à la Gardiane

eels 2

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T-L fishMy second pair of eels were smaller – about four ounces apiece. For them I chose a provençal Ragout of Eels recipe from the Fish volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. It was another very easy preparation. In a broad saucepan I muddled together olive oil, smashed garlic, half a bay leaf, some thyme, a piece of orange peel, and a tiny dried hot red pepper. The eels went in next, along with some salt and ¼ cup of red wine.
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eels 2 in pan

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Again, the main cooking liquid was water, almost to cover, but this time the dish cooked uncovered. The eels took a little over half an hour to tenderize, by which time the liquid had reduced quite a lot but hadn’t thickened. It was too acidic to use as a gravy so I lifted out the eels for serving.

eels 2 served

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They were thoroughly imbued with those provençal seasonings, and very rich. Good tasting, but surprisingly heavy. We actually couldn’t eat too much of them. But it was an interesting experiment in contrast to the very pleasant Roman-style dish.

Whenever Beloved Spouse goes food shopping by himself, I know he’ll come home with at least one fancy thing that wasn’t on his list. This week, at our local Eataly, he was seduced by a display of gigantic artichokes. The one he proudly presented to me weighed in at 1¼ pounds. (I’ve learned never to ask what these serendipities cost.)

artichoke

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We’re fond of artichokes, which I usually simply boil and serve as an appetizer, either warm with drawn butter or room temperature with vinaigrette. This monster I thought deserved something more elaborate. I decided to stuff it.

SchwartzMany Italian cookbooks have carciofi imbottiti recipes, usually all quite similar. The one in Arthur Schwartz’s Naples at Table is a bit different because its stuffing is not based on dry breadcrumbs but on mollica di pane – the crustless interior of Italian bread. I hadn’t seen that before, so I thought I’d try it. (If Beloved Spouse is a sucker for a giant vegetable, I’m an easy mark for an uncommon recipe.)

Preparing the artichoke for stuffing was something of a struggle. After cutting off the prickly tips of the leaves and the top of the cone, I had to tease open the entire flower, pull off the small, translucent central leaves, and dig out the choke. Gargantua strongly resisted this dismembering. But I got them out eventually.

preparing

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I set the artichoke to soak in cold water for half an hour while I prepared its stuffing. I cut the crust from a chunk of day-old bread, broke it in pieces, soaked them in cold water, squeezed them nearly dry, and chopped them small. To that I added a mince of capers, anchovy, parsley, and garlic, then mixed everything together with olive oil and hot red pepper flakes.

stuffing mix

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Next was to drain the artichoke and tuck bits of the stuffing between each row of leaves and inside the central cavity; set it in a deep pot; drizzle on more olive oil, salt, pepper, and a few dry breadcrumbs; and pour a cup of water around it.

cooking

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When the water came to a boil, I was to cover the pot and simmer for 45 minutes or until the artichoke was tender. With the size of my artichoke, it was over an hour before a fork poked into its base encountered no resistance, and I’d had to add several doses of hot water during that time to keep the pot from boiling dry. I served the artichoke warm as a dinner first course for two.

served

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Alas, I have to say it was disappointing. Even though the artichoke bottom had tenderized nicely, most of the large leaves were still quite tough, so it took some serious tooth-and-jaw work to strip a little flesh from them, which wasn’t even as flavorful as it is in my usual smaller artichokes. I guess I should have cooked it longer, but now I’m wondering if that artichoke had been overgrown, to a stage of incorrigible leatheriness.

Also, we didn’t care for the texture of the stuffing. The bread component had become gummy – almost spongy. Finally, the other flavorings of the stuffing were rather coarse. Altogether, this was not one of my better culinary experiments.

Long ago, when I first started doing Indian cooking, I couldn’t see the attraction of basmati rice. My only Indian cookbook insisted the so-fragile rice had to be washed in nine separate waters, soaked for exactly thirty minutes, and cooked only in one of three minutely specified ways. It seemed like far too much trouble to go to for rice – which, at the time, was only a minor dish in my culinary repertoire. What can I say? I was young and ignorant – and wrong.

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jaffrey vegetarianMany years and five more Indian cookbooks later, I’ve learned to appreciate the long, slender, pointy grains of basmati. Gone are the nine washes: A few rinses are all that’s called for now. Maybe the US is importing a cleaner, better grade of rice? Basmati still requires more care than ordinary long-grain rice, but its flavor and texture more than reward the effort. I used it in an excellent dish this week from my newest Indian cookbook, Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India.

I chose the recipe, Rice with Dill and Peas, partially to showcase the fresh English or shelling peas that I’ve been enjoying from my Greenmarket for the past few weeks. In a large pot, I browned thinly sliced onions in olive oil and gently stirred in the soaked and drained rice, garam masala, chopped fresh dill, salt, and water. I brought it all to a boil, covered the pot tightly, and put it in the oven for 25 minutes. I took it out, quickly tossed in a handful of blanched fresh peas, returned the tight cover, and baked for 5 more minutes. Out of the oven, the pot sat undisturbed for 10 minutes, after which I fluffed up the rice and served it.

rice peas dill

It was lovely. Perfectly done, with neither dryness nor excess liquid. You couldn’t taste the dill as such, but it, the onions, and the garam masala subtly blended into the flavor of the nutty, aromatic rice. The peas made an attractive color and textural contrast and added just the smallest touch of vegetable sweetness.

Following Jaffrey’s suggestion, I’d made a Carrot Raita to serve alongside the rice. This was a departure for me, nothing like the raita I usually make, which is soft curds of yogurt, grated cucumber, ground roasted cumin seeds, and chopped fresh mint. This one was a dense relish, made with a thick Greek-style yogurt, a lot of coarsely grated carrots, chopped green chili, chopped cilantro, sugar, and salt, with a final lacing of whole mustard seeds and coriander seeds sizzled in olive oil.

carrot raita

The raita was quite sweet from the carrots – actually a bit sweeter than we’d have liked – but it had an intriguing flavor, and it partnered excellently with the rice and peas. Because it was so thick, I thought maybe I’d chosen the wrong kind of yogurt (though it was made by Kalustyan, which ought to know!), but later research told me that Indian yogurt is indeed like that, so I guess I did it right. Next time I’ll just skip the sugar.

To round out the evening’s dinner, I added a small meat dish: a goat curry that I like to make, based on an easy lamb recipe from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking.

goat curry

bowlful

Cherries! – among the earliest of the full-summer fruits. When they arrive in the Greenmarket, what I most often make with them is clafoutis. I’ve written here about what I consider the world’s best clafoutis recipe, and I’ll certainly be making it at least once before cherry season is over. But this year I wanted to start with something different.

Joy In that great resource, Joy of Cooking, I found a simple cherry dessert recipe, which Irma Rombauer calls Fresh Fruit Crisp or Paradise. It’s given as an apple dish, but she says you can use any fruit you like, mentioning cherries specifically. I’d also been considering a cherry cobbler recipe, but the topping on this crisp is thin and crunchy – lighter than the thick biscuit topping that’s usual on a cobbler.

The only effortful part of making the cherry crisp is pitting the fruit. This batch decidedly did not want to give up its stones: My pitter, which works pretty well on olives, would punch a neat hole through the middle of a cherry, but the pit would have slid aside and have to be dug out with fingernails, squirting cherry juice as far as it could reach. Maddening!

pitting

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Once that job was done, I spread my four cups of cherries in a pie dish, moistened them with two teaspoons of kirsch, and let them think about it while I prepared the topping.

cherries in dish

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(This was actually a rash experiment, in a small way. The topping is simply a crumbly mixture of flour, butter, and brown sugar. Recipes always call for packed brown sugar, which is fine if you have a fresh, moist supply. But it doesn’t take long for an opened box of brown sugar to turn into a solid brick, and mine had been in the pantry since Christmas. So instead of trying to re-soften my sugar rock, I ground it into powder, using my Kitchen-Aid’s rotary shredding attachment.

I had no idea how the change of state would affect the quantity of sugar I should be using, nor the way it would behave in the cooking. Moist packed sugar would bulk more than dry ground sugar, so should I use less? But pulverized old sugar might have lost some of its potency, so should I use more? I settled for taking just the recipe’s quantity.)
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End of digression; back to my crisp. After stirring together half a cup each of flour and brown sugar I cut in four ounces of cold butter, worked the mixture into crumbs (adding a few drops of water to compensate for the dryness of the sugar), spread them over the cherries, and put the dish into a moderate oven for half an hour.

raw and baked

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It came out very well, as so many of Rombauer’s simple, old-fashioned recipes do. The cherries were tart-sweet and meltingly soft but had held their shape and freshness; there was an intriguing faint aroma of the kirsch; and the crumbs were nut-sweet and pleasantly crunchy. As far as I could tell, the brown sugar did exactly what it was supposed to do.

serving

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Now I’m eager to try the recipe with peaches, as soon as they come into their season of full ripeness, and, after I’ve indulged us in a fabulous clafoutis, I might even make another cherry crisp if their season lasts long enough. If I do, I might skip pitting the cherries. As it is with watermelon seeds, discreet spitting of pits would be permissible.

Pollo alla Romana

A few weeks ago I wrote about my disappointment with a pasta recipe from Katie Parla’s cookbook Tasting Rome. Even so, it’s an attractive book – with lovely photography by Kristina Gill – so I was still eager to try their versions of other traditional Roman dishes. This next one I made, though decent, wasn’t anything to be excited about.

Pollo alla romana – chicken braised with peppers and tomatoes – is a simple but delicious down-home dish, a standby of every Roman trattoria. It was one of the first recipes I developed for publication in La Tavola Italiana, so as before I was judging Parla’s version of a dish against my own.

For a half recipe to serve two, I used two huge chicken thighs from my freezer. These monsters together weighed a whole pound, which, considering how much was solid meat, I figured could stand in for half a modest-sized chicken.

thighs

The first recipe direction interested me: It calls for salting the chicken pieces 6 to 24 hours in advance; and that’s all the salt there is in the entire dish. I’d never done that before. I tried it, and it was indeed enough salt – though I can’t say I detected the promised “more delicious final product.” The rest of the cooking procedure was also different from mine. Here are the book’s steps:

  • Brown cut-up chicken pieces in olive oil for 8-10 minutes; remove them to a plate.
  • Add sliced onions, sliced bell peppers, and garlic to the pan; cook uncovered 10 minutes, or until the vegetables soften.
  • Pour on white wine; deglaze the pan; stir in canned tomatoes and fresh marjoram.
  • Return the chicken pieces to the pan and add enough water to submerge them halfway.
  • Cook uncovered 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is very thick and the chicken nearly falling off the bone.

And here are mine:

  • Brown chicken pieces in olive oil with garlic.
  • Pour on white wine, deglaze and cook briskly until it evaporates.
  • Stir in chopped canned plum tomatoes, salt, and pepper; simmer 15 minutes.
  • Add cut-up bell peppers; cover and cook gently until peppers are tender, 15-30 minutes.
  • If sauce is too thin, remove chicken and peppers; rapidly boil down sauce.

As you can see, a big difference is the book’s sauteeing the vegetables by themselves – that, and the addition of onions to the dish.

vegetables

That in itself is not a bad idea, but though I sliced the vegetables to the recipe’s specifications, they took much more than 10 minutes to soften.

Then after returning the chicken pieces to the pan with all the other ingredients, I cringed at the requirement to nearly flood the pan with water.

thighs afloat

Why on earth would you do that? It makes it possible – indeed, necessary – to complete the cooking with the pan uncovered, but why would you want to? The part of the chicken pieces exposed to the air is not being imbued with the flavors as it would in the moist atmosphere of a covered pan. I also feel that my version’s deglazing of the pan with wine while the chicken pieces are in it is important to let the chicken absorb some of the wine flavors.

Finally, 30 minutes wasn’t nearly enough for the sauce to have thickened and the chicken to be nearly falling off the bone. I had to cook it quite a bit longer, and the sauce still didn’t thicken very much. The timing problems, along with a few other anomalies in the recipe directions, made me wonder if the authors had ever actually cooked the dish for themselves.

Rather than plop those big thighs whole onto two dinner plates, I took the meat off the bones and combined small pieces of chicken with the peppers and sauce in a serving bowl.

pollo alla romana

The dish tasted all right to me: not unlike what I’d had in some restaurants in Rome. Beloved Spouse was less pleased with it. He said it wasn’t lively enough, the flavors too muted, and the sauce tasted both too sweet and too thin. (Tough critic, that spouse.) I had to agree that my recipe makes a more intensely flavored dish: fresher tasting peppers, more “chickeny” chicken. It’s faster and easier to make, too. So I’ll stick with my version – though I might try experimentally adding a few onions next time I make it. (Beloved Spouse just cocked an eyebrow.)

I had a birthday recently. Though it wasn’t a biggie (didn’t end in 0 or 5), Beloved Spouse and I decided it rated a very special dinner. That meant dining at home, so he could bring out some of his special older wines to accompany the festive food I’d make. Poultry lover as I am, my thought immediately turned to game birds. Wild-mushroom lovers as we both are, the next thought was morels, since they’re in season. In one of my cookbooks I found a splendid recipe to combine them in.

SchneiderElizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini is a combination reference work and cookbook, with extended essays on 350 vegetables. In each chapter there are a few recipes of her own for the vegetable, plus a section called Pros Propose, in which she gives “recipe sketches from chefs (and other culinary professionals) too lengthy, complex, or exotic to include in full.” In that section of the morels chapter I found Ragout of Pheasant with Morels and Chives.

The ingredients sounded as if they’d complement each other very well, so I promptly made a shopping list and got ready for the day. Schneider’s recipe sketch had no quantities or timing, just the steps to take, but the details were easy enough to figure out for myself.

Starting in the (regrettably rainy) afternoon, I enriched a stock made from chicken bouillon cubes with carrot, onion, and the pheasant’s neck, gizzard, and wing tips. While that simmered along, I quartered my plump, never-frozen pheasant, browned it in butter, and tossed in halved shallots.

browning pheasant

Next came a sprinkling of flour, minced garlic, white wine to deglaze, a generous batch of lightly sauteed morels, and chopped chives.

adding morels

My chicken-pheasant stock got poured into the pan next, and the whole preparation had to simmer, covered, “until the meat comes easily off the bone.” That took an hour and a half – longer than I’d ever cooked so small a bird before, but it proved to be the right thing to do. Finally, I removed the pheasant and all the vegetables long enough to reduce the sauce and stir in heavy cream, and then I put everything back and heated it through for serving.

pheasant ragout

This was the best pheasant dish I’ve eaten in my life: moist, tender, delicious. You couldn’t call it gamey – this was a farm-raised pheasant, after all – but the interplay of the ingredients made it rich and intensely satisfying. The morels and the bird adored each other. And the 1998 Bouchard Beaune Clos des Mousses that we drank with it made for a happy ménage à trois.

The rest of the meal wasn’t shabby, either. Here’s what else we ate and drank:

  • For apéritifs we sipped 2004 Bollinger Champagne, along with a few gougère puffs.
  • Our first course was Coquilles St. Jacques Nantaise a dish I’ve written about before.  With it, a 2004 Drouhin Beaune Clos des Mouches.
  • For dessert I’d made a rustic apricot tart, and the dessert wine was a 2006 Vin Santo of Chianti Classico.

four wines

We didn’t finish all those wines that evening, I hasten to say. The “leftovers” (though they hardly deserve so uncomplimentary a name) made a second stellar performance two evenings later, when we celebrated our 47th wedding anniversary with another special dinner – this one featuring oysters, a rare rib roast of beef, new peas, a potato gallette, cheeses, and a 2004 Drouhin Chambolle Musigny.

You can probably see why we choose to stay at home for special occasions like these. What a gift it is to be married to a man with a wine collection! And while, as I said at the start, this birthday was no biggie, it was a large enough number to persuade Beloved Spouse that, yes, it’s indeed time to start enjoying some of those wines. Maybe getting really old won’t be so bad after all.

Warm-weather produce is finally getting into high gear. This week’s Greenmarket had plenty of strawberries (jam-making soon!), sugar snap, snow, and shell peas – and the very first zucchini. They come from a farm in southern New Jersey and are blessedly unlike the far-traveled, long-picked, grocery-store zucchini we’ve had to make do with for so many months.

Long-time New Yorkers may remember the days when stores labeled their best produce “Jersey fresh.” Whether it was corn or tomatoes or eggs, the soi-disant Garden State was thought to grow the best of it, and the taste of this batch of zucchini suggests that may still be so.

HazanI decided to honor my sweet new summer squashes with an elegant presentation: the Baked Stuffed Zucchini Boats recipe from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook. It’s a lovely recipe, one that I’ve adopted in spirit for many years, but that I hadn’t followed precisely for nearly as long. It was time to revisit the source.
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My four zucchini were larger than the size called for, but perfectly fresh, firm, and tender. I snipped off their ends, halved them lengthwise, and carved out the centers with care, saving the pulp.

preparing

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I parboiled them in salted water until just beginning to soften. Actually, this part of my preparation was not quite faithful to the recipe. Marcella has you cut the zucchini into 2½-inch logs, hollow them out from end to end, leaving ¼-inch walls all around, and boil them that way, not cutting them in halves until much later. My way is easier, and it lets me dig out longer boats with less danger of piercing their hulls. I think it makes a more attractive presentation, with no difference in the flavor of the resulting dish.

The next steps were to make a cup of béchamel sauce and sauté a mince of onion, ham, and half the zucchini pulp.
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stuffing

 

I did that, though my zucchini pulp utterly refused to turn the “mellow golden color” that Marcella predicted. No matter – it softened and turned creamy, as it should. Then I stirred together the minced mixture, about two-thirds of the béchamel, a raw egg, and a few tablespoons of grated parmigiano. I gave Beloved Spouse the fun of grating in a big dash of nutmeg – a spice that he adores.

That was the stuffing for the boats, so after aligning them in a buttered baking dish I spooned in the stuffing, sprinkled on breadcumbs, and dotted with butter.
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oven-ready

 

The dish went into a 400° oven, in principle for about 20 minutes, but mine took closer to 40 before it developed the required light golden crust. Perhaps because the zucchini were bigger?

zucchini boats

(All those smudges around the sides of the dish are due to my overenthusiastic buttering. No food stylists around to pretty it up!)
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This was very fine food: richly creamy, but quite delicate and light on the palate. The zucchini flesh and the stuffing blended together beautifully, almost melting in the mouth. And the gentle flavors were subtly perfumed by the nutmeg; Beloved Spouse really liked that.

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