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For a recent evening I had a simple dinner for two planned: broiled shrimp, braised escarole, and plain rice. But when I went to defrost the 12-ounce package of shrimp that was indicated on my freezer list … Eek! there were only 5 ounces’ worth. Rapid change of plan required!

Only 5 ounces

Only 5 ounces!

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In hopes of not having to run out to a store, I began looking for a reasonably quick, unfussy recipe that would combine a few shrimp with a lot of rice. I expected to find some in my Spanish cookbooks, my Mexican ones, even my New Orleans ones. But no: There were plenty of interesting recipes using shrimp and rice, but all too time-consuming and ingredient-heavy for my immediate need.

Well, I said to myself, there’s always risotto.

Then – perversely, you may say, since I’d rejected other preparations as being too complex – I looked in my Italian cookbooks for a risotto recipe that would be at Scicoloneleast a little uncommon and interesting to make. I found one in Michele Scicolone’s 1000 Italian Recipes: Shrimp and Celery Risotto. I found it intriguing because, other than in cold seafood salads, I’d never thought of combining shrimp and celery. Furthermore, my five ounces of shrimp were just the right amount for making one-third of the recipe, which was written in quantities to serve six. Clearly, this was meant to be.

I also had some fish broth in the freezer, which I proceeded to melt down and simmer with the shrimp shells while I chopped celery, onion, garlic, and parsley; cut the peeled shrimps into small pieces; and measured out two-thirds of a cup of short-grained Italian rice.

ingredients

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The cooking began by turning all the aromatic vegetables into a soffrito: sauteeing first the onion in olive oil, then the celery, parsley, and garlic. Gentle cooking, nice aromas already coming together in a simple harmony.

sauteeing

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When the celery was still just a little crunchy, I stirred in the rice, let it sauté a bit with the soffrito, and began slowly adding strained broth in the usual risotto manner – just enough at a time to keep the dish moist. I didn’t have quite enough broth, but hot water was fine at that point of the cooking: The rice had already absorbed plenty of flavor. Just before the rice was tender, I added the shrimp, along with salt and pepper. They cooked quickly, and at the very end I finished the risotto with a healthy slosh of extra-virgin olive oil.

risotto served

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It was very good indeed: rice nice and creamy, shrimp still toothsome, all flavored gently by the celery. A substantial and satisfying dish. If it had a flaw, it was the minor role played by the celery. I can’t blame the recipe for that, though; I blame winter. I’m sure the risotto would have had more charm if I’d been able to use the vibrantly green, crisp, flavorful celery that I used to get from the summer Greenmarket instead of the pale, watery, cellophane-bagged kind that’s what I have to make do with now.

Anyway, I’m glad to have discovered this recipe and relieved that I salvaged a pleasant meal even with so small an amount of shrimp. Sound economics and good flavor: a fair deal for a weekday dinner.

Millecosedde

The blizzard that engulfed the East Coast a few days ago provided the perfect occasion for me to make millecosedde. This Calabrian “soup of a thousand things” is a classic down-home, depth-of-winter dish, just the kind of comforting food you want when all you can see out your windows is madly swirling snow.

I had on hand all the ingredients called for in my recipe from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen – fortunately, since I had no intention of venturing out that day. Following my own headnote suggestion, I started by checking the odds and ends of dried beans in the pantry, aiming for color contrasts. The best candidates were Great Northern (white), Rio Zape (red pinto), and Casteluccio lentils (golden brown).

beans soaking

I’d put them on to soak the night before. (The lentils didn’t need it, but it didn’t hurt them.) In the morning I drained them and put them in a big pot with shredded Savoy cabbage; sliced carrots, celery, onions, and mushrooms; and Beloved Spouse’s best homemade broth. After they had simmered together for an hour and a half, I stirred in salt, pepper, and a healthy dose of olive oil, and cooked for another half hour.

soup cooking

The pot then sat on the back of the stove until dinner time approached. The beans had absorbed most of the liquid by then, so I had to add some water to loosen up the soup. Separately, I boiled a batch of ditalini pasta, added that to the soup pot too, and cooked it for five more minutes. Off heat, I stirred in another dose of olive oil – extravirgin, this time – let it sit for a final five minutes, and served, adding freshly ground pepper and grated pecorino cheese to each bowlful.

millecosedde

Wonderfully warming, hearty winter food. Let it snow! (And it sure did: more than two feet in Manhattan.)

I’m still restricted to simple cooking for a while, until Beloved Spouse recovers from the miseries recently inflicted on him by the medical profession. But Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cooking, by Lidia Bastianich and her daughter Tanya Manuali, which I received as a Christmas gift, has been calling to me, so I finally resolved to try a couple of its simpler recipes.

LidiaPhysically, it’s an unusual book by today’s cookbook standards, as well as in comparison to Lidia’s own previous oeuvre. No glossy paper, no color photographs, occasional purely decorative small line drawings, not even a dust jacket. The first 90 pages are about ingredients, tools, and techniques – hence the subtitle “Everything You Need to Know to Be a Great Italian Cook.” The information is interesting enough and especially useful for a beginning cook, but I find the title’s unavoidable echo of Julia Child’s magnum opus really overweening.

Still, Lidia herself is a great cook, and since I don’t have any of her other books, I was happy to receive this one. In my search for simplicity, I started with vegetable recipes.

Though it hasn’t been a harsh winter yet, I’m already getting a little tired of winter vegetables. I’d picked up some asparagus – now in stores year-round – so I thought that doing something more than just boiling them would help their less-than-total freshness. I tried her Roasted Cheese Asparagus.

The recipe was almost agonizingly detailed. The first instruction is: “Brush a rimmed baking pan large enough to hold all the asparagus flat, without overlapping, with a tablespoon of the olive oil (Or use two pans.)” In other words, “Oil a large baking pan.”

Next it has you both snapping off the woody bottoms of the asparagus stems and peeling the rest of the stems halfway up. I can accept one or the other, but to do both with the specified medium-thick asparagus seems like wearing suspenders and a belt. I just did the snapping.

Then you’re to toss the asparagus with oil and salt in a bowl. Now, really: The shape of asparagus spears does not lend itself to tossing in a round container. Why not just spread them in the baking pan, add oil and salt, and stir them about until coated? You have to lay them out in the pan anyway, to roast them.

Meanwhile, you’ve preheated the oven to 450°. Fair enough. But: You’re to put the asparagus pan on the bottom rack of the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, then pull it out, sprinkle on grated Grana Padano cheese (just parmigiano will never do for this book’s recipes!), and move it to the top rack for another 5 minutes, or until the cheese is browned. Again, this seems like totally unnecessary fussiness. I don’t know this, but I suspect that any temperature differential would depend on whether you’re using a gas or electric oven (heat only from the bottom, vs. from both top and bottom), and the effect would be minimal for the short time involved here.

Well, never mind. I put my asparagus pan on a rack more or less in the middle of the oven, and after the first 10 minutes sprinkled on an amount of cheese (parmigiano) that looked sufficient to me – less than the recipe called for. They came out fine: The topping was a nice delicate crunch, and since I don’t usually match asparagus with cheese, I enjoyed the flavor combination.

Llidias asparagus

I can’t really complain: I wanted a nice simple dish, and I got one. I’m just bemused that the recipe wasn’t presented as simply as it could have been.

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walnut cakeI will say that my next foray into one of the book’s recipes was significantly more rewarding: Its Walnut and Coffee Cake is a sort of pound cake flavored with chopped walnuts, espresso, and brandy – really quite delicious. A rich, sturdy slice of it makes a good treat to give a person deeply disgusted with hospital food. Maybe I’ll write more about it next week, if I haven’t gotten back to more adventurous cooking by then.

Circumstances have restricted me to minimal cooking lately, so for this week’s post I’ll look back to the holidays and the lovely scallop recipe I made to precede the cassoulet that I served on Christmas Day.

Scallops are always a treat, especially the ways that French cooks prepare them as appetizers. Because the cassoulet was going to be very rich I wanted to start Simca's Cuisinethe meal with something fairly light. I found what looked like the perfect recipe in Simone Beck’s Simca’s Cuisine. This interestingly quirky book by the co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking is arranged by menus. The one titled “An Earthy Dinner for High-Spirited Friends” was centered on a cassoulet (not the version that I was making). Its first course was Coquilles St. Jacques Nantaise, a preparation parenthetically described as au naturel.

The au naturel approach was very different from the elaborate parisienne and provençale styles, which I’ve often made from the recipes in Mastering. It turned out to be well worth knowing.

In the parisienne, the scallops are poached with mushrooms in wine, water, and seasonings. The poaching liquid is reduced and turned into a sauce with flour, butter, egg yolks, and cream. The scallops and their sauce go into shells, are topped with grated cheese and butter, and broiled.

In the provençale, onions, shallots, and garlic are sauteed in butter. Separately, scallops are sliced, floured, and sauteed. Wine, herbs, and the onion mixture simmer with the scallops until the sauce thickens. Set in shells, they’re broiled, with a grated cheese and butter topping.

In Simca’s recipe there is no precooking of the scallops, no wine-cream-egg yolk sauce, no wine deglazing sauce, no mushrooms, no grated cheese topping. But there is butter – a lot of it. That, of course, is the French notion of “natural.” I used my best Irish butter for the dish.

I cut my raw sea scallops in pieces; put them into buttered individual gratin dishes; added salt, pepper, and minced shallots that I’d softened in butter. I sprinkled on fine breadcrumbs and melted butter and baked 12 minutes at 375°.

scallops

They were delightful. The scallops and shallots had married in a pure bliss of butter. Simple as it was to make and equally so to look at, the dish was staggeringly lush. Not exactly the light starter I’d been looking for, but after consuming it, the “high-spirited friends” at my table didn’t hesitate to dig into the cassoulet. I believe I’ve discovered a new star for my culinary firmament.

Julia Child says her recipe for a sauté of beef with onions, mushrooms, and way to cookpotatoes has “a certain jazzy style … for a rather important and intimate occasion.” She urges “an informal twosome” to prepare it “while having meaningful conversations and apéritifs together in the kitchen.” Joke it may be, but to me that sounded perfect for a quiet New Year’s Day dinner. Less so to Beloved Spouse, who is only slowly recovering from hip replacement surgery, but he gamely agreed to step – or hobble – into the role.

The recipe fills two large pages in The Way to Cook, giving a very specific order of battle and illustrated with nine color photographs. Julia claims the whole thing can be done by reasonably fast, well-equipped cooks in less than half an hour. We doubted that, especially since nowhere did it say “Have a sip of your apéritifs” – which was a first and recurring step for us.

aperitifs

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Undaunted, we proceeded. I peeled four cipolline (chosen instead of the recipe’s tiny white onions) and stewed them gently with broth, tarragon, and salt while Tom, exercising his renowned knife skills, chopped shallots, quartered mushrooms, and cubed potatoes.

First pair

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Next we jointly sauteed the potatoes in butter and oil in one pan and the mushrooms and shallots in another, engaging in such meaningful conversation as “Do you think that flame is too high?” and “The mushrooms already look done to me.”

Second pair

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Then – with a pause for a sip of Krug – it was back to the cutting board for Tom, to chunk up two thick beef tenderloin steaks while I took the mushrooms out of their pan and melted more butter in it, ready to receive the meat. It seemed a pity to mutilate those lovely steaks, but we did it as directed. The sacrifices one makes for art!

steaks

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After quickly browning and removing the beef, we made a sauce in its pan: more shallots, white vermouth, and broth; the liquid boiled down almost to a syrup; then lightly thickened with cornstarch. We stirred the beef back into the sauce, along with the onions, their remaining juices, and the mushrooms. While they all warmed together, we gave the potatoes, which had been waiting in their pan, a dose of additional butter, salt, parsley, and tarragon, and tossed them quickly over high heat. The final step was to strew the potatoes over the meat – and serve.

full saute

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I’m not sure why Julia regarded this dish as jazzy. It didn’t seem jazzy to us. But it was certainly good. The beef was still rare and beautifully tender, the potatoes crisp and buttery, the onions and mushrooms excellent complements, the sauce subtly flavored with vermouth and tarragon. A very elegant little meal. With it we drank a very elegant 1999 Barbaresco Montestefano from the Produttori di Barbaresco. An auspicious start to our 2016 dining.

P.S. While Tom and I surely qualify as reasonably speedy, well-equipped cooks, preparing that “fast sauté” took us 70 minutes.

Cassoulet for Christmas

My Christmas dinner this year emphasized heartiness rather than elegance. The main course was a big pot of cassoulet with lamb, garlic sausage, and duck confit. We were going to eat as if it were frigid winter outside, despite what the thermometer had been saying.

Cassoulet

Actually, my cassoulet recipe somehow got away from me this time. That’s a seven-quart pot, and there were only four of us dining. Some time ago I’d created a small recipe, much simplified from Julia Child’s version in Mastering, Vol. I, for a cassoulet for two. All I did this time was double it, but it certainly grew! Here are the components:

ingredients

The intimidating size of the dish was mostly because of the quantity of beans, I think. Rancho Gordo says its cassoulet beans are bred from original French Tarbais stock, which is the classic cassoulet bean. When I gave them an overnight soaking two evenings before Christmas, they swelled enormously. The next day, when I cooked them with onion, bacon, pork skin, garlic, parsley, bay leaf, thyme, and clove, they “swole” even more. Sampled, they already tasted delicious. They went into the refrigerator overnight.

Also that day in advance, I cooked chunks of lamb shoulder with onion, wine, broth, tomato paste, thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper. That stew also reposed in the refrigerator overnight, developing its flavor.

So by Christmas Day all the heavy work had already been done, and I had only to drain the beans, put them in the big pot, stir in the lamb and its liquid, tuck in slices of French-style garlic sausage and confit duck legs, add a little of the bean soaking liquid, and put the whole thing into a 375° oven for about an hour. I also boiled little German butterball potatoes in their jackets, to serve alongside.

cassoulet 1

That array of meats and beans made hefty platefuls, almost staggeringly rich and succulent. We bravely worked our way through them and, at the end, were surprised by how much we had managed to eat. Still, there were ample leftovers to look forward to in the days ahead.

Combined with a first course of coquilles St. Jacques nantaise and followed by a cheese course, a pear sorbet and Christmas cookies, plus, of course, wines from Beloved Spouse’s collection, that cassoulet made it a merry Christmas meal indeed.

An early Christmas gift from my friends Bruce and Joan was Madhur Jaffrey’s jaffrey vegVegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking. It’s a big handsome book, with gorgeous color photographs. I was immediately drawn to many of the recipes and couldn’t resist trying a few right away. I settled upon two of the simpler ones: a mushroom curry and a dish of peas and potatoes, to be served as a weeknight dinner for two, along with a pair of very un-Indian, un-vegetarian Cajun andouille sausages.

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A quick trip to the great Indian grocery store Kalustyan provided what was lacking in my pantry supplies: not very much, I was pleased to realize. All I absolutely needed for these recipes were the mushrooms and a piece of fresh ginger – though once in the store I picked up several things for use in future recipes. And so home to cook half recipes for two.

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For Peas and Potatoes Cooked in a Bihari Style, I started in the afternoon by boiling, cooling, peeling, and dicing three fingerling potatoes; also defrosting a generous cup of small green peas. Toward dinner time I prepared and measured out all the other ingredients, because from that point the cooking had to proceed quickly.

A little oil in a nonstick frying pan got me started. In it I sizzled whole cumin seeds for a few seconds, then stir-fried half a chopped onion until it was soft. Finely grated fresh ginger, a finely chopped hot green chili (a serrano, but who’s checking?), and ⅛ teaspoon of turmeric went in next, for just one minute.

condiments

Finally, I added the peas, potatoes, salt, and pepper, stirring for just another minute. Then I could turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let it sit at the back of the stove until we were ready to dine. It reheated perfectly well and, gratifyingly, looked very much like the photo in the book. (That doesn’t always happen with gorgeously photographed cookbooks.)

peas & potatoes 2

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Jaffrey’s Simple Kodava Mushroom Curry was indeed comparatively simple to make, as Indian curries go. I started by rubbing salt, turmeric, and chili powder (Mexican, but again, nobody’s checking) into half a pound of white mushrooms – wearing a plastic glove as the author suggests, to keep turmeric stains off my fingers.

shrooms

While the mushrooms sat for a while to absorb the spices, I set up the other ingredients: whole brown mustard seeds, a chopped hot green chili, ¼-inch half rings of onion, and freshly ground coriander seeds. Each of those flavorings went in succession into a little oil in a hot frying pan. Next into the pan came the mushrooms, which I stir-fried for a few minutes, mixed in a little water, covered, and simmered for 10 minutes. That was all: The curry was ready.

mushroom curry 2

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Both the vegetable dishes were highly successful, and both went well with grilled sausages. The peas and potatoes were fairly mild tasting, delicately imbued with their mixture of spices. The mushrooms were more robust, with a lively touch of fire from their different set of spices. Both were nice textural counterpoints to the grilled andouille. Our palates were soon tingling with the flavors of this unusual pre-Christmas dinner. Not our traditional run-up to the holiday, but thoroughly enjoyable.

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