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It’s always interesting to look at a recipe for a very different version of a very familiar dish. Will it be as good as the way I make it? Will it be better? My newest cookbook acquisition, Tasting Rome, by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill, offers several opportunities for those comparisons, since I love Roman cuisine. The first recipe I ventured on was pasta alla carbonara, a dish especially dear to Romans and a staple at my house.

Parla 2As the authors – young American food journalists who live in Rome – say, this is a dish whose exact ingredients and technique give rise to passionate argument among Roman cooks (among whom I like to think myself an honorary member). My own recipe, published in Tom’s and my 1988 cookbook La Tavola Italiana, is of course the version I like best, so I looked at theirs with a critical eye. They offer two versions, both with differences from mine, most notably one that makes the sauce in a double boiler. I’d never heard of that, so it’s the one I decided to try.
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The book’s recipe begins by having you sauté small strips of guanciale in olive oil, drain it and let it cool.

guanciale

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My recipe starts there too, but it calls for pancetta, because it used to be hard to get guanciale here and pancetta is an accepted alternative in Rome. I dice it smaller and sauté it with onion and a peperoncino, in both olive oil and butter. (Nowadays, I often use bacon, which some say is the original meat ingredient of the dish, created post-WW II, when American GIs brought their bacon and powdered eggs to Rome.)
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According to Tasting Rome’s recipe, while the pasta is cooking, you beat together eggs, grated pecorino Romano, black pepper, and water in the top of a double boiler over simmering water, whisking continually until the cheese melts and the mixture thickens.

sauce

My recipe calls for simply beating the eggs in a bowl with pecorino and parmigiano, salt, pepper, and parsley.

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Back to Parla and Gill: Off heat, you stir the guanciale and the cooked pasta into the sauce in the double boiler; transfer it to individual bowls, and sprinkle each portion with more grated pecorino and black pepper.

carbonara

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That last step was also a very significant difference. In my version, I add slightly underdone pasta to the warm pancetta-onion mixture in its sauté pan, toss over low heat to coat the pasta with butter and oil and finish its cooking; then, off heat, stir in the egg-cheese mixture and serve. That procedure creates a sauce with a very different mouth feel, and one I like a lot better.

For me, the double-boiler sauce was too glutinous, and since I couldn’t coat the pasta first with the mixed fats, it absorbed too much of the sauce and came out tasting flat and floury. And despite how smooth the sauce had seemed in the pan, on the pasta it was somewhat grainy – not pleasant to the tongue. Oh, well – de gustibus.

As usual, I bought too many bananas the last time my store had good ones from Costa Rica; and, as a result, some had been sitting in my refrigerator for more than a week. They were still in quite good condition, despite their unfortunate appearance – but it was really time to do something with them.
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bananas 1

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commandersI’ve always been intrigued by the thought of Bananas Foster, that famous creation of New Orleans’ Commander’s Palace restaurant: bananas sauteed in butter, sugar, and cinnamon, flamed with rum and banana liqueur, and served over vanilla ice cream. I had the recipe in the restaurant’s cookbook but I’d never made it, because Beloved Spouse can’t stand rum and we don’t keep banana liqueur in the house. Now, looking longingly at the recipe once again, I had a brilliant idea: This could be done simply with cognac!

And so I did, as a dessert for three. (We had a visitor: a good friend who was game to be experimented on.) I started by scooping vanilla ice cream into three shallow bowls and putting them temporarily in the freezer. Next I peeled and halved three large bananas. At the stove, I melted six tablespoons of butter in a big skillet and stirred in a third of a cup of dark brown sugar.
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butter and sugar

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When the sugar had dissolved I put in the bananas and sauteed them for a few minutes on each side.

bananas sauteeing

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Then I poured on six ounces of cognac and set it ablaze.

flaming 2

The recipe says to baste the bananas with the flaming sauce, but I wasn’t getting my hand too close to that conflagration! I just gently tilted the pan back and forth until the flames died down. Then I brought out the ice cream bowls and spooned the bananas and sauce over them.
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Semi-Foster 2

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This wasn’t a thing of beauty, but we all agreed it was a truly delightful dessert: just sweet enough, with all the flavors and textures blending beautifully. Cognac and butter over the best bananas we could get and the best gelato this side of Italy worked individually and collectively to create a lovely dinner-closing harmony. I’m sure the Commander’s Palace chefs make a more attractive presentation, but I don’t think they could make a more delectable dish.

Chipotle Aioli

SandovalThe new recipe I made this week is for a lively, versatile condiment from Richard Sandoval’s book New Latin Flavors. Though it’s called an aioli, there’s no garlic in it, so it’s really a flavored mayonnaise. But flavored with chipotle in adobo, it’s a very interesting thing.

I first had it at a dinner at Sandoval’s New York restaurant, Pampano, last fall; subsequently saw the recipe in his book and meant to try it, but never did. Then this week I discovered a forgotten few remnants of canned chipotles in adobo among the many jars and bottles that live on the door shelves of my refrigerator. I thought I’d have to discard it, but I tell you, chipotles in adobo may hold the secret of eternal life. That stuff goes on forever! You don’t use very much of it in any one recipe, and the supply that I bought has been in and out of my freezer several times for longer than I care to admit to. It never seems to deteriorate.

So I took the deathless substance out and made a small batch of the book’s aioli. Very complex preparation: One chipotle, chopped and blended with half a cup of mayonnaise until smooth. I didn’t even use homemade mayonnaise – just good old Hellman’s. Beloved Spouse and I had it as the condiment on a cold vegetable first course, and its smoky tang gave a very nice lift to boiled asparagus, raw radishes (first of the season, at last!), and hard-boiled eggs.

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chipotle aioli

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We didn’t finish all of it that evening, so I’ve been dabbing it on other foods in subsequent days. Assuming that you like the flavor of chipotles to begin with, this aioli’s zing goes well with many things. We’ve used it on hot vegetables and cold roast beef, in salad dressing, and as a sandwich spread. I’m really pleased with it. Next I’m thinking about a potato or macaroni salad made with it, since the season for those salads is just around the corner. Guess I’m going to have to buy a new can of chipotles in adobo so I can make this “aioli” any time I like.

I’m just back from a birding trip to Texas. It’s migration season, when millions of northbound birds cross the Gulf of Mexico and touch down on the coast to rest. Consequently, birding was excellent, but the food on the trip was dismal. I don’t say it’s impossible to eat well in rural East Texas, but I do say that we sure didn’t. Almost everything on offer was either batter-fried, heavily sweetened, drowned in tasteless gravy, or all of the above. And fresh green vegetables didn’t seem to exist – potatoes, beans, and rice were most of the story.

Evidently there are no restaurants within a reasonable distance from the bird-friendly shores, fields, and forests of that area that have learned anything new about cooking in the last 60 years. Nor wanted to: Their local clientele seemed perfectly happy with the food. To give credit to our group leaders, they chose the best places that they could find, and we 14 group members were free to order anything on the menus. But I pass over in silence our Chinese, Cajun, and Mexican dinners. Unfortunately, when you’re out in good fresh air all day, you get hungry, and so, even against your better judgment, you eat.

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Not everything we ate was dreadful, of course. Here’s one dish that was a very pleasant surprise for me: two grilled quail on a bed of sautéed Texas 1015 onions, which I had at a rustic barbecue restaurant.

quails

 

These specially bred sweet onions – relatives of Bermuda, Spanish, and Vidalia types – are Texas’s official state onion and its leading vegetable crop. I found them very flavorful, not cloyingly sweet, and free from the pungent aftertaste that lodges in the lungs after eating some kinds of onions. (Beloved Spouse says the best dish he ate all week was some of those same onions deep-fried.) As for the quails, if anyone thinks it ghoulish to sit down and eat small birds after a day of birdwatching, I can only plead guilty. But they were awfully good!

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Another trying aspect of the trip was drinks. The beers were good, but I’m not much of a beer person, and the wines – when there were any – were pitiful. Beloved Spouse nearly divorced me when I ordered this little bottle of red one evening. (Note the elegant chilled glass that was provided for it.) He insisted it would be undrinkable, and I have to admit it nearly was. Nevertheless, I drank it.

wine

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So, getting back to the reason we willingly underwent this culinary culture shock: the birds. It was a fabulous trip in that respect. The High Island area, on the upper Texas coast east of Houston, is a magnet for migrating birds. Wind and weather conditions favored us, bringing in huge numbers of birds from across the Gulf. In the five days we two saw 196 different species: shorebirds, water birds, raptors, and songbirds, including an amazing 21 kinds of warblers. It was all nearly – nearly – enough to make us forgive the food!

High Island Patch

 

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

 

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