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Eggplants are everywhere in my Greenmarket now. Not just every where, but every size, every shape, and every shade in the white, green, and purple ranges.

Greenmarket eggplants 2

They’re among my favorite summer vegetables, and I make them most often in composed Mediterranean-style dishes – ratatouille, caponata, ciambotta, parmigiana – sometimes stuffed, and occasionally just simply baked or fried. Most recently I wanted to try a different kind of preparation, so off to the cookbooks I went on a search.

T-L MideastIn the Middle Eastern Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series, I was intrigued by several Iranian recipes for coucou, explained as a thick vegetable pancake. One, Coucou Bademjan, was for eggplant. That would do! I initially thought the dish would be like a frittata.

You start by frying thinly sliced onions in olive oil until dark brown. (This is a common way of treating onions from the Middle East through India, and the effect is quite different from less-cooked western ways with onions.) Take the onions out of the pan, put in half a pound of eggplant cubes, and stir to coat them with the oil. Add turmeric (whose color you’ll spend the next three days trying to remove from pans and implements), salt, pepper, and water; bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until the eggplant is tender. Return the onions and cook briskly, stirring, until the liquid is almost all evaporated.

coucou 1

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Then you transfer everything to a large bowl and let it cool. Finally, eggs are beaten in: four of them. They made a very soft batter, unlike any frittata mixture. The cooking technique is different too. It’s done in that same pan, with more olive oil, of course – eggplant is a sponge for oil! – but covered. Mine cooked quickly around the edges, while the center stayed very wet. The eggplant itself seemed to be liquefying rather than firming as the batter cooked.

The recipe’s next instruction was strange. You’re to cut the cake into four wedges right there in the pan, keep on cooking for a minute or two “until the center is firm,” invert a plate over the pan, flip everything over, and slide the coucou back into the pan to cook the other side.

At that point Beloved Spouse, who is the frittata cooker in our household, intervened. Ridiculous to cut wedges and then try to turn them over as a single cake! Also, when the uncooked side touches the plate, it’s likely to cling, making it hard to get the item to slide cleanly back into the pan. He finished the cooking according to his own technique. When he judged the coucou to be ready to turn, after quite a bit more cooking time than indicated, he slid it out (uncut) onto a large, upside-down pan lid, which he held from below by the knob; inverted the pan over it, and then quickly flipped the whole thing; cooking the second side again longer than the recipe said. It came out an attractive golden brown, but still much softer than a frittata ever is.

coucou 2

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When the coucou was on its serving plate, I finally cut it into quarters and served them, as the recipe suggested, with a few slices of ripe tomato. As you’ll see, it does look a bit like a frittata, but it was nothing like one in texture. Didn’t look much like a pancake either, for that matter: It was still soft and very moist. Quite tasty, though, and pleasantly eggplanty.

coucou 3

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We ate the first two quarters at a lunch – it’s pretty rich and filling – and I put the rest in the refrigerator for another meal. Two days later, for a dinner, I warmed the leftover two quarters in the toaster oven and served them as a first course with a simple (also leftover) tomato sauce on the side. They’d dried and firmed up a bit, and tasted even better than previously.

coucou 4

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This was a very different way of treating eggplant than any I’m familiar with, and I’m not entirely sure the dish turned out the way it should have. But it was interesting to try, enjoyable to taste, and a learning experience that has me considering other uses for the coucou approach.

The word “pasta” notwithstanding, the new recipe I tried this week is nothing like an Italian dish. It’s pure California in-your-faceness. The shrimp, beans, and escarole, each cooked separately, plus garlic, lemon zest, and toasted breadcrumbs, all of which dress the pasta, are more like a warm salad than a sauce. And, like most salad components, each tastes purely of itself, with no blending into anything subtle or complex.

ingredients

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I actually liked the combination. But Beloved Spouse, with the heritage of countless generations of Neapolitan ancestors looking over his shoulder at the dinner table, simply couldn’t approve of it. Maybe the fact that I spent three years in California in my twenties gave me a tolerance for the breed; or maybe my own onlooking Polish peasant ancestors were just bowled over by all the flavors.

goldsteinBe that as it may, the dish is from Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations. This feisty lady, formerly owner-chef of a major San Francisco restaurant, takes all of Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa as her purview – and turns them all into California cuisine. For my taste, many of her creations are way over the top, but I did enjoy this latest one – with only a few minor tweakings.

Several of the components of the dish have to be prepared in advance, which can be good or bad depending on your schedule. It was fine for me. I cooked both the shrimp and the white beans in plain water in the morning and put them into the refrigerator until needed. In the late afternoon I shredded the escarole and sauteed it with minced garlic; zested a lemon; turned a chunk of baguette into fresh breadcrumbs in the food processor; and toasted them in the oven with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

At dinnertime, I put together all those prepared items (only half the breadcrumbs) and heated them through while the pasta was cooking . . .

condiment

 

. . . then just mixed them into the cooked pasta and topped with the remaining breadcrumbs.

dish

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As I said above, these were all good tastes, but none of them did anything much to or with each other. There were very nice textural contrasts, though – and the toasted breadcrumbs were the best I’ve ever tasted. For the first few bites, the power of the lemon zest was almost shocking, but then it settled into the background. I enjoyed the separate strands of flavors, but Beloved Spouse found the absence of harmony unpleasant. So the dish is not likely to enter my repertoire, but it was an interesting experiment.

For the record: My minor departures from Goldstein’s directions were to use less garlic for the escarole, less salt and pepper for the crumbs – she’s always extravagant with seasonings – and less cooking for the shrimp.

clammed upSeveral weeks ago I wrote about making two dishes from recipes in the e-book Clammed Up, a murder mystery set in a seaside Maine town and involving a family-run summer clambake business. Another recipe featured in the book was for one character’s specialty, much loved in the family, Livvie’s Lobster Mac and Cheese.

The dish sounded very tasty but I approached the recipe with a little trepidation, because one of the earlier two I’d made – a New England-style clam chowder – hadn’t worked for me at all. (The other one, blueberry grunt, did.) The thing is, for all my love of pasta, I had never made and never even eaten any kind of American macaroni and cheese combination, so I had no basis for judging this recipe. But I knew that basic mac and cheese was a much-loved comfort food, and lobster seemed a great enrichment, so I hoped for the best.

I was making half the recipe, which meant half a pound of lobster to half a pound of elbow macaroni. After I’d weighed the elbows out, they looked as if they’d cook up to an awfully large amount, and the only liquid in the dish would be a bechamel made from ¾ cup of milk and 1 tablespoon each of butter and flour. Of course, the cheese would melt and moisten the dish too, so I guessed it would be OK.

The two kinds of cheese named in the recipe were from Hahn’s End, a well-known but purely local Maine dairy. Alternatives suggested were cheddar and fontina. I had cheddar and young asiago on hand, which I thought would be close enough to those two, so I grated ¾ cup of each.

To assemble the dish I mixed the cooked macaroni (but only three-quarters of it: it did cook up to a lot) with the cut-up lobster meat, bechamel, cheeses, and chopped chives. The only salt called for was what had gone into the bechamel. After putting it in a baking dish I spread on a topping made from melted butter, breadcrumbs, and grated parmigiano, and put it in a hot oven for 20 minutes.

lobster mac and cheese

Not bad looking, we thought. Then we tasted it: Big, big disappointment. The macaroni was blah, bland, boring – and there was still far too much of it in proportion to the other components. The dish was dryish, barely cheesy, and in desperate need of salt. The crumb topping was nothing but crunch. The lobster meat was fine, but it didn’t interact at all with the other flavors. In fact, after eating some of the dish, we began picking out the lobster and leaving the macaroni behind.

leftover

It seemed like a sad waste of good ingredients. In a truly successful dish, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This one was just the opposite: Every part was intrinsically a good thing to eat, but put together they diminished each other. Macaroni and cheese lovers of the world, tell me there are better versions than this!

Raspberry Jam Tart

An especially nice, easy dessert came my way this week.

On her return from a trip to Alsace, my friend Michele brought me a jar of raspberry jam made by the famous artisanal pastry chef Christine Ferber. This was an extraordinary fruit essence – smooth, rich, bursting with pure berry flavor. It glorified our morning toast and English muffins. But the label carried a strict notice to consume the jam within a week of opening the jar, and we just don’t eat that many breakfast breads.

Ferber raspberry jamSo after the jam had spent a bit more time than that in the refrigerator I decided I’d better think of something significant to do with the rest of it. Of course: a jam tart! My initial thought was a French-style jalousie tart with puff pastry, à la Julia Child. But I didn’t have any puff pastry dough in the freezer and making a batch would be a lot of work for what would be a very small tart. When I expressed my reluctance to Beloved Spouse, he quickly replied, “Why don’t you use your simple jam tart recipe from our first cookbook?”

Golly, I’d forgotten all about that recipe! So I pulled out my copy of La Tavola Italiana again (after making the caponata recipe from it just last week) and there was the dish. The Italian name is crostata, and LTI’s version uses orange marmalade, but of course it works with any kind of jam or preserve. The dough is pasta frolla, a tender, sweet Italian type that makes a very tasty crust.

Pasta frolla is not as easy to work as typical American or French short-crust pastry: It likes to break apart the moment you try to lift it off the rolling surface. But you can learn how to handle it so that you control it, not it you. The first thing is to roll it out between sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap. But then, when you’re ready to place it in the tart pan, it will try to glue itself onto the paper and refuse to come off at all.

So, after each major thinning of the dough with the rolling pin, I gently peel off the top paper, dust the dough with flour, set the paper back on, turn the whole thing over, and repeat the peeling and flouring before rolling the dough to the next stage of thinness. That usually relaxes it enough to let me transfer it intact to the pan.

pasta frolla

This day, I had only enough jam to fill a small, seven-inch tart, which left me plenty of extra dough to make a lattice top. Confession: I have neither the patience nor the skill to braid a lattice properly, weaving the strips over and under each other at the intersections. Whenever I’ve tried, I’ve made a mess of it. So I just lay on the strips however is convenient and brush them with egg glaze before baking the tart for about 40 minutes at 375°. It comes out looking good enough for me.

jam tart

The Christine Ferber jam made a splendid little tart, its intense raspberry flavor beautifully set off by the lightly sweet, crunchy crust. Beloved Spouse thinks it one of the tastiest jam tarts he’s ever had. So Michele, if you’re reading this, thank you again!

 

Caponata

LTIAh, summer! When farmstands are laden with eggplants and tomatoes and peppers, and a happy home cook can revel in the bright flavors, turning out lively, colorful vegetable dishes for hot-weather dining – ratatouille, panzanella, gazpacho, caponata. I made the season’s first caponata this week, using my own recipe from La Tavola Italiana.

I didn’t much like caponata when I first tasted it, long ago. The one I had came out of a can, and my recollection is that it was mostly mud-colored, with an indeterminate flavor and a mushy texture. Much later, my first encounter with a freshly made one was a revelation.

Many good variations on caponata are possible. Ingredients and quantities are very flexible, but to my mind there are some limits – which are not always observed in the recipes I’ve seen. First, caponata is not a spread: it’s chunky. Second, it absolutely has to contain eggplant. (Believe me, some don’t.) Third, the components must be sauteed in olive oil. As you might guess, I like my own version. These are its ingredients:

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Ingredients B

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Those vegetables take a lot of chopping. My gallant knife-wielding husband took on the task for me, as always. (That’s not pure altruism: Tom likes caponata too.) Here they are, awaiting their baptism in the sauté pan.

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chopped stuff

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The first item to go into an inch of hot olive oil was the eggplant, after it had been salted, set in a colander for half an hour to give up some of its moisture, and lightly squeezed dry in a linen cloth. As soon as the eggplant had softened sufficiently and lightly browned in the hot oil, I drained it onto a plate and replaced it with the pieces of green pepper. When they had joined the eggplant on the plate, I drew off most of the olive oil, leaving just enough to soften the onion and celery, and then added the tomato for 10 minutes. In a separate little pot I briefly simmered the vinegar, capers, sugar, salt, and pepper.

The eggplant and peppers went back into the pan, along with the vinegar mixture, the pine nuts, and the olives, and everything simmered together for 10 more minutes. (A word about the olives: I usually buy oil-cured black ones, but this day I had some big green Castelvetranos in the refrigerator, which I pitted and chunked up, and they were beautiful in the mix. I’ll use them again.)

Caponata needs at least a few hours to sit at room temperature before serving, so the flavors have time to blend and harmonize. When they’ve done that, it’s really a delicious concoction, an ideal hot-weather first course or picnic dish.

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my caponata

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Leftovers – when there are any – keep well for a few days in the refrigerator.

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caponataP.S.  There’s one other recipe for caponata that I like as well as my own. It’s the one made by Adelina, Inspector Montalbano’s housekeeper in the Sicilian mystery novels by Andrea Camilleri. It’s unlike any other caponata I’ve encountered. I’ve written about it here.

Making a meal of dishes featured in Andrea Camilleri’s novels about the Sicilian police inspector Salvo Montalbano seems to have become an annual event for me.

When, in the middle of an investigation, our hero is struck by “his customary wolflike hunger,” the meals he eats are described with such gusto that I’d give montalbano cookbookanything to be able to join him at the table. That not being possible, my next choice is to page through Stefania Campo’s I segreti della tavola di Montalbano: Le ricette di Andrea Camilleri and plan a dinner around some of that cookbook’s recipes. I’ve written about my results here four times in the past four years; so to keep up the tradition, here’s this year’s installment – one dish from each of three of the novels, which I made for a small dinner party with friends who are also Montalbano fans.

Sfincione

With aperitifs in the living room, I made a sfincione, which is a kind of focaccia or thick-crust Sicilian pizza, very popular even here in the US, that’s mentioned in Excursion to Tindari. Montalbano himself doesn’t eat this. He hears about it from a garrulous old citizen he’s questioning, who tries to describe the entire meal his nephew, who lives in Tindari, served him on the day of the titular excursion – starting with a sfincione.

Sfincione

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The book’s recipe calls for already-risen bread dough (purchased, presumably), into which you are to knead grated pecorino, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. I made my own dough, using my favorite focaccia recipe. I pressed it into a pan, spread over it a quickly made tomato-onion sauce, dotted it with bits of anchovies, strewed on shavings of caciocavallo cheese, and baked it in a hot oven until just barely done.

I did all this early in the day, so in the evening all I had to do was add a topping of fine breadcrumbs sauteed in olive oil and return the pan to the oven for 10 minutes. Cut into small squares, the sfincione was a very tasty snack. We made short work of it.

Sfincione finishing

 

Polpettine di polipetti

Of the day’s three dishes, this was the most unusual one, which I was most eager to make: octopus croquettes. One of Montalbano’s two favorite restaurants is the eponymous trattoria of his friend Calogero. In The Smell of the Night he arrives there at lunchtime with that wolflike hunger of his and eats spaghetti in squid ink followed by a dozen fried octopus meatballs. They sounded fascinating, but since I had never even heard of making croquettes from octopus, much less tasted any, I didn’t want to chance them as the main course of my dinner party, so I made them as a hot antipasto.

It was quite a production. Here are the main stages:

Polpettini

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I had already-cooked octopus tentacles in the freezer, left over from a previous cooking event. We put them through the meat grinder (those are Tom’s hands in the picture) and I mixed in grated pecorino cheese, bread soaked in white wine and squeezed almost dry, garlic, parsley, and an egg. I shaped the mixture into balls, put them in refrigerator for a few hours to firm up, dipped them in egg and then breadcrumbs, and fried them. All this this was early in the afternoon. At dinner time I reheated the croquettes in the oven.

Alongside, we served cut-up lemons and a spicy tomato sauce (Tom’s idea and invention). With great curiosity, everyone tasted them. Oh, dear! While they were perfectly acceptable croquettes, they had no flavor of octopus. Squeezes of lemon brought out a hint of it, but so mildly that the basic ingredient could have been any white meat – chicken, pork, veal, even alligator or rattlesnake. I suspect it was the pecorino that masked the flavor of the octopus, but you couldn’t even taste cheese as such. We all ate a few, but the dish was a letdown – edible, certainly, but far from exciting. I can’t believe Calogero wouldn’t have made it better.

Agnello alla cacciatora

Every reader of the novels knows that Montalbano would much rather dine on fish than meat. He doesn’t get that choice on an occasion in The Voice of the Violin: Calogero’s place is closed that day and he tries La Cacciatora, an osteria 20 kilometers inland from the coast. When the proprietor asks him what he’ll have, Montalbano says “Bring me whatever you like.”

He receives a fiery hot pasta to start, followed by the house’s lamb hunter’s style. He likes it, particularly enjoying the “pleasant fragrance of onion and oregano.” That made me a bit suspicious of the cookbook’s recipe, which contains black olives, capers, celery, red wine, tomato paste, only a little onion, and no oregano. (I added some at the end.)

lamb cacciatora

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It was a pleasant enough lamb braise. But it would have seemed much more Sicilian to us – and probably more interesting – if it had been made with swordfish rather than lamb. I’ll bet Montalbano would have liked it that way too.

The lamb I cooked a whole day in advance, since stews and braises generally taste better if given some time for their flavors to develop and blend. Which they did, but not in a way as to really excite our palates. On the positive side, none of these three dishes seemed to have been at all harmed for having been done in advance and reheated. A very useful attribute for a busy dinner-party cook.

Pulpo a la Carlos

Back in the ‘70s, Tom and I often dined at a small Greenwich Village restaurant called El Rincón de España. We particularly loved the owner-chef’s specialty of octopus in a tangy red sauce, Pulpo a la Carlos. We didn’t know much about Spanish food then, and we never figured out what gave the dish its unusual flavor. (Innocents as we were, it didn’t occur to us to ask.) As time moved on, we grew away from El Rincón (it closed long ago), and it was many years before I became seriously interested in Spanish cooking.

Fast forward to the present. The food on our recent trip to Spain had given us a Pimentonstaste for pimentón – smoked paprika – tins of which we’d brought back and begun experimenting with. One evening Tom concocted a marinade for some shrimp to be broiled, using olive oil, garlic, oregano, and hot pimentón. The first taste of the shrimp was a Proustian moment for us both: This had to be the way Carlos did his pulpo!

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Of course, I had to try it. I was able to buy cooked octopus in a local store, which was a great time- and labor-saver:

cooked octopus

(That’s 2⅓ pounds of octopus – much more than I needed for the two of us, but there’s another octopus recipe, not Spanish, that I intend to try, which I’ll report on here in due time.)

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Casas MammaI also checked my Spanish cookbooks and found a recipe for Pulpo Encebollado (Octopus with Paprika in Simmered Onions) in Penelope Casas’s La Cocina de Mamá that used similar ingredients. It didn’t include a marinade, but the rest of the technique looked good, so I basically adopted it. Another good sign: The headnote mentioned that this was a recipe from Galicia, where octopus is enormously popular. El Rincón’s Carlos was also Galician.

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So: Tom cut up a pound of the octopus tentacles into one-inch pieces and I froze the rest. I simmered 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 teaspoons of hot pimentón, and ½ teaspoon of salt in ⅓ cup of olive oil. When it was cool I poured it over the octopus pieces and let them marinate for a couple of hours, stirring occasionally.

marinating octopus

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In the evening I poured off that seasoned oil and in it softened ¾ cup of minced onions, slowly and covered, so they almost dissolved. Then I added the octopus, stirred in just a little water to keep it from frying, and heated it all through.

final cooking

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It was simply gorgeous. Was it indeed the Pulpo a la Carlos we’d eaten so many years ago? We’re not certain, but it came as close as reminiscence allows. Maybe Carlos added a little tomato puree, to make the whole dish a bit saucier?  I can try that next time – and there will be a next time. Octopus is delicious: Low in fat, high in protein, packed with vitamins and minerals, it has to be the world’s meatiest mollusk. Its succulent flesh seemed to revel in the contrast with the lively pimentón sauce. The plain rice I served alongside absorbed that sauce with enthusiasm, too. It’s an extraordinary pleasure to rediscover – after 40 years! – such a great culinary treat.

octopus plated

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