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It’s high peach season, and my Greenmarket is bursting with the fruits. Though I already have several easy recipes for peach desserts that Tom is always happy to eat on summer evenings (and often for the next day’s breakfast too), I enjoy looking for new ones to try. The recipe I found this week was somewhat misleading and didn’t come out at all the way I expected.

It’s called Peach Crumble Cake, and it’s from Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts. The name was intriguing to me, because a crumble and a cake are normally quite different things. A cake, of course, is baked from a sweetened batter, and even if fruit is added, it comes out firm and sliceable. For a crumble, the fruit goes into a pan and is topped with a crumbly mixture of flour, sugar, and butter. When baked it’s spooned out for serving.

This particular recipe has a base of cake batter, with peach halves set on top. Okay, I thought, that seems like an easy enough kind of cake; I’ll just have to see how the “crumble factor” enters the picture here.

A glitch appeared as I noted the number of peaches the recipe required. For an 8-inch square pan, it wanted 10 large peaches, cut in halves. That was absurd: Even if each peach were only 2 inches wide, that size pan would hold only 16 halves – and most peaches are much larger than that. In any event, I didn’t have an 8-inch square pan, so I’d be using a 9-inch round one (the same capacity, per the πr2 formula). So I bought six peaches, each easily three inches across. I already had all the other ingredients.
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The preparations went smoothly enough. I creamed butter with brown and white sugar; beat in flour, baking powder, and eggs; and transferred the batter to my buttered cake pan.
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I dropped the peaches briefly into boiling water, drained and peeled them, and cut each one in half.
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From the amount of room they took up on my 11-inch prep board, it was clear that not all those halves were going to fit in my pan. And they didn’t. It took only seven halves, plus tucked-in bits of an eighth. I sprinkled them all with lemon juice and a mix of cinnamon and sugar.
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I expected that the cake batter would rise up and cushion the fruit, though I still couldn’t think how anything would become crumbly. However, the pan was already looking pretty full, so as I put it in a 350° oven, I made sure to set a baking sheet on a shelf just below it, in case the rising batter overflowed the pan. Which it did, in a few places.
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Baking time was a little problematic. The recipe said to bake one hour or until golden. My cake was golden after only 45 minutes, but the cakey part still tested very wet inside. At 10 minutes after the hour, when the crust was starting to darken to brown, my testing skewer finally came out clean. I pulled the cake out of the oven and set it on a rack to cool.
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Obviously, this was not the kind of cake that could be turned out of its pan onto a plate for serving. The recipe had no further handling instructions, so I thought I’d treat it like a pie and take slices straight from the pan.

Nooo, not that either. The missing “crumble factor” kicked in, but not in any way I’d expected: My attempted slices crumbled and fell apart at first touch. Also, the whole interior of the dish was extremely juicy – not to say soggy.

Well, all right: Since the cake had become this very moist crumble, I spooned it into bowls and served it with scoops of ice cream, as the recipe suggested. Texture aside, it tasted fine. It’s hard to hurt ripe peaches and sweet dough.
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But if I’d wanted a simple peach crumble, there are easier ways than this to make one. It was the crumble-cake combo that mainly interested me.  And, aside from the misnomer of calling this a cake, I think something was wrong in the recipe’s proportions: Though I used less than half as many peaches called for, the dish was far too wet. The sugar seems to have drawn so much liquid out of the fruit that the batter couldn’t firm up enough. And the crust would have blackened if I’d baked it longer.

So, for my next peach dessert this summer, I’ll go back to one of my tried and true recipes. The same book has a very good one for a peach cobbler that I’ve written about here before. And I have a recipe of my own for a “proper” peach cake, which I’ve also written about here.

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Veal Francese

The Italian dish vitello alla francese came to America with the great wave of immigration from southern Italy that started in the late 1880s. As “Veal Francese,” it became a staple of the rapidly growing New York City Italian restaurant culture, and it’s still found – in varying degrees of quality – on almost every southern-Italian-style restaurant menu in the US.

Tom, who grew up just across the river in Jersey City, remembers it well from those days:

Veal francese was a standard dish – although one of the more expensive ones – of every Italian-American restaurant I ever frequented. Veal in all sorts of preparations was a lot more common than beef, and a restaurant of any ambitions had to offer several. I remember veal francese fondly as one of simplest and most elegant of them: no tomatoes, no peppers, no onions, just a modest sauce and a thin, tender, delicious, golden slice of meat.

Yielding to Tom’s nostalgia, we made veal francese together for a dinner this week, using a pair of large, well-pounded veal scallops from our butcher shop (owned by an Italian-American family).
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I’d done some recipe checking and found that, to start, the veal is typically dipped in egg and coated with flour, but Tom recalls the New Jersey version always using breadcrumbs instead of flour for a lighter casing. We did it that way.
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While the breaded scallops were firming up in the refrigerator, we took advantage of an unexpected trove of morel mushrooms we’d seen that morning at Eataly.
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Where in this country the store had found morels in August is a mystery – they’re spring mushrooms, and I don’t think they’ve ever been successfully cultivated. But even at their outlandish price, we grabbed some. And sautéed them in butter to accompany the veal.
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We then sautéed the veal in butter with a little olive oil – quickly, to retain all its juiciness. Butter may not be authentic to the Jersey City style: Tom’s memory is hazy on that point.
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The cooked veal waited in a warming oven while we deglazed the pan with white wine, stirred in a few big spoonsful of broth, added salt and pepper, and reduced the liquid until it was almost syrupy. There was just enough sauce to moisten the pieces of veal on their serving platter. Veal francese should never be awash in sauce: On that point Tom’s memory is solid.
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The dish was brilliant. And the morels alongside were a match made in heaven. The interplay of flavors from the veal, the sauce, the mushrooms, and even a plain baked potato was intricate and harmonious, the wild earthy notes of the mushrooms counterpointing the meat-sweetness of the veal and its delicate sauce.
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Glorious as it was, this veal francese is obviously a dish of great simplicity. For that very reason, it’s imperative to have ingredients of absolute top quality. Thus, our veal was thinly cut slices, fresh from the butcher; the breadcrumbs were homemade, as was the broth; and the cooking medium was Kerrygold, a fine Irish butter.

It’s regrettable that in some restaurants veal francese has become a tired, boring, last-choice menu item. That’s almost certainly due to cost-cutting practices like mediocre meat and old, stale cooking oil, as well as careless handling – meat cut badly, coating too heavy, cooking time too long, too much too-gloppy sauce. Treatment like that is what has given Italian-American cooking a bad name, which it definitely doesn’t deserve.
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Good to the last bite!

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BTW, should anyone be interested in more information about Italian-American cooking, here’s a link to an article Tom and I wrote some years ago for The Journal of Gastronomy, called “Italian-Americans in New York: a Bicultural Cuisine.”

 

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Back in May, when I wrote about dinners I’d had in Lyon, I mentioned a sweet-sharp condiment that was served alongside foie gras at Brasserie Le Nord. It was an odd, nubbly relish, with a flavor like nothing I’d ever had before, and made an interesting foil for the luscious, silky foie gras. Here’s what it looked like:
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When I asked our server what was in it, she had to go into the kitchen to find out. Returning, she said that, today, it was red onion, apple, pineapple, and celery. I’d never have guessed those! (Hmm: only today? Possibly different yesterday and tomorrow? Interesting.)

Back home, culinary curiosity demanded that I try recreating it for myself. I started with an internet search for “fruit condiments for foie gras.” Very instructive: There seem to be many such recipes, often quite complex, that I haven’t known about. However, none of them seemed as if they’d produce the texture I wanted.

Next I looked in my cookbooks for chutney recipes. That was more encouraging, because the basic approach to chutney is simply to chop the main ingredients, put them all in a pot, and cook them with some liquid and the desired seasonings until the mixture is as thick as you want it. So I assembled my four ingredients:
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Now, what proportion of each should I use? One onion gave me 2/3 cup, minced. Two stalks of celery, also 2/3 cup. One apple (quickly turning brown) gave me 1½ cups. And I took a whole cup of pureed pineapple, so there’d be plenty of juice in the mix.
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Wondering if it would be wise to cook the two vegetables by themselves at first to soften them a little, I divided each ingredient into halves and briefly sauteed half the onion and celery in butter. Then in two separate pots I combined the ingredients, the cooked vegetables and half the fruits in one, the raw vegetables and the remaining fruits in another.

What else should go in? I knew that Le Nord’s version didn’t have any Indian spices, but I had no idea what others there might have been. I decided to add only a pinch of salt and two tablespoons of apple vinegar to each pot – no other sweetener.
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Then I cooked both mixtures, covered, stirring occasionally, until they thickened enough to hold their shape, which took about 45 minutes. They came out looking very similar: the one with uncooked vegetables a little darker. (I do wonder what Le Nord used to make its version so red.) Both tasted fairly interesting, with almost no difference between them.
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Then came the fun part. We had a block of foie gras in the refrigerator (a gastronomical souvenir of the Lyon trip) just waiting for a chance to try the new condiment with. And we did.
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You can hardly see any difference in the two little heaps of – I still don’t know what to call it: relish, chutney, preserve, conserve, confiture? – but the slightly darker one is on the right. Both made a nice enough flavor and texture contrast with the foie gras, sweet and the merest touch piquant, soft and nubbly. I can’t say they provided any major enhancement, though. Foie gras is gorgeous enough on its own.

We tried some again another day with some good cheeses: same mixed result. The simple fact is, this little condiment is a lot of work, especially for the small quantity I could use while it was fresh enough: a restaurant’s dish rather than one to make at home. Still, it was an interesting experiment.

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Planning for a casual dinner party last week, I turned to the summer section of TSOTIK (rhymes with exotic), our family name for Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. There I found recipes for several perfect-for-hot-weather dishes that I hadn’t made in a long time, so I built the evening’s menu around them.

 

Insalata Caprese – Zucchini a Scapece

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Insalata caprese
hardly needs a recipe at all: just pair the best available mozzarella with the best available tomatoes, and offer salt, pepper, and olive oil for diners to dress their own portions. The great white puffball you see above is a very fresh 1½-pound buffalo milk mozzarella, and the red cartwheels around it are local heirloom tomatoes. The combination is always wonderful.

Zucchini a scapece is a classic Neapolitan antipasto that I’ve written about before. For it I lightly floured rounds of zucchini, fried them in olive oil, and marinated them overnight in a simmered mixture of vinegar, water, garlic, and chopped mint leaves. The dish is best when made, as here, with the costata romanesco variety of zucchini, the prince of the summer squash family.

 

Fettuccine all’Abruzzese

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If you think this bowl of pasta looks as if there’s barely any sauce on it, you’re right. There isn’t much. But this simple peasant dish always surprises people by how unexpectedly delicious it is. The sauce is just a sauté of finely chopped pancetta and onion; chopped basil and parsley, salt, and pepper; with a little broth stirred in and nearly evaporated. The fettuccine – homemade, and rolled very thin: that’s essential – are tossed first with grated pecorino cheese and then with the sauce. The pasta readily absorbs the sauce, and the diners just as readily absorb the pasta.

 

Abbacchio in Umido – Ciambotta

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For the book I translated this meat recipe as “Summertime Lamb Stew” because, in Italian, in umido means stew, but there are no substantial vegetables in it, as there are in most cold-weather stews. It’s simply chunks of boneless lamb shoulder braised in tomato sauce, with seasonings of chopped pancetta, onion, carrot, celery, parsley, and marjoram. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get really young lamb these days, so the dish can take much longer to cook than the recipe suggests. Not a problem, though: just start early – even a day in advance – simmer however long it takes until the lamb is tender, and reheat it when needed. This is a reliable dish: It’ll be fine.

To accompany the vegetable-less lamb stew, I made a big sauté of summer vegetables from the greenmarket: eggplant, celery, onions, potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini. We also had plenty of crusty bread available to soak up the delicious juices they generated, along with the equally good sauce from the lamb.

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The dinner wasn’t confined to these three courses. We also had a few hors d’oeuvres before coming to table, a cheese platter after the lamb, and a simple dessert of homemade lemon ice with cookies. Altogether, a very relaxed and comfortable summer repast. And Tom had picked out five wines from his collection to match with the food. He has written about those wines on his own blog.

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Salade Lyonnaise

The deadly heat wave that scorched most of the US last weekend was my fault, I fear: The weather gods noticed that I’d just published a post saying summer in New York hadn’t been too hot yet. I’ll never learn!

So I’ve been back on the hunt for interesting new summer recipes. Today’s good salad dish came about by happenstance. For another kind of salad I needed frisée, which isn’t always available locally. Tom, doing the shopping, brought home the only head of it there was in any of our stores. The thing was gigantic: Even after using as much as I needed for that first dish, what remained was a great green wig more than 18 inches across.

 

Frisée is delicate, so I’d have to use it soon. Salade lyonnaise came to mind, since I’d enjoyed one recently during my cruise on the Rhône. It’s a dish of bitter greens and crisp bacon, an atypical vinaigrette, and the crowning touch of a poached egg.

Surprisingly, none of my cookbooks had a recipe for the dish, but the internet had many of them. One by Mark Bittman of the New York Times seemed like a classic so I took it as a model. For two portions I tore up enough of the palest friseé to fill two cups, tightly packed, and set it aside. Then I slowly crisped four slices of bacon in a skillet with a little olive oil.

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That was an error, as it happened. I was supposed to cut up the bacon raw, and I hadn’t paid attention. Not a problem, though: I took out the cooked slices, chopped them, and returned them to the pan, leaving in all the rendered bacon fat. Next I added a tablespoon of chopped red onion. That was twice as much onion as the recipe called for, but still a very modest amount.
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After a minute’s sauteeing, I stirred in two tablespoons of red wine vinegar and half a tablespoon of Dijon mustard to complete the dressing for the greens.

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For poaching the eggs, I used my regular technique (learned long ago from From Julia Child’s Kitchen.) A little fussier than Bittman’s, it turns out perfectly cooked fresh jumbo eggs in exactly 3½ minutes. Unfortunately, as can be seen below, this day one of my two eggs wasn’t fresh enough: the white spread out and partially slid away from the yolk, spoiling the oval shape.
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I slipped the eggs into cool water to halt the cooking and, since this was not for a company dinner, didn’t bother trimming off the unsightly bits. My bad. But they taste just as good as aesthetically pleasing eggs.
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I spread the frisée on two plates, tossed it with the rewarmed bacon dressing, and topped each with an egg. Here’s the portion with the nicer shaped egg:
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At table, after the usual family squabble over who should have the better-looking plate (This time Tom won; I got it), we each broke open our egg so the liquid yolk could mingle with the greens, and added salt and pepper to taste.
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Simply fabulous! I’d been worried that there might not be enough dressing to coat all the frisée, but it turned out to be a perfect amount. A vinaigrette with rendered bacon fat taking the place of olive oil is just wickedly good. A little more onion in the dish wouldn’t have hurt, and we both could happily have eaten a second poached egg on it. Even so, all the flavors came together in a luscious harmony, for a salade lyonnaise even better than the one our cruise ship had served.

Before the rest of my frisée wilts, I think I’ll be doing this dish again.

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Summer hasn’t so far smothered New York City with the kind of punishing heat wave that has afflicted other parts of the country this July, but our temperatures and humidity have been high enough, for long enough, to make the prospect of cooking – especially oven cooking – less attractive than it normally is for me.

Consequently, I’ve been looking into recipes for dishes that can be either cooked in advance and served cool, or made all of raw ingredients, not cooked at all. I found a really nice one of the latter type in Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain.

It’s her Ensalada de Champiñon, a mushroom and cured ham salad. I wouldn’t consider it a side salad – that is, something to be served along with a meal’s main course – because it’s so substantial in itself. But it would make an excellent component of a tapas spread, as Casas suggests, and for me it was a delightful appetizer.

For the two main ingredients I sliced fresh white mushrooms and cut julienne strips of Spanish Serrano ham. Though I was halving the recipe, I used the full quantity of ham because I wanted to give it more prominence in the dish. The dressing, from a separate recipe called El Aliño (which my dictionary says simply means “dressing”), is the most elaborate salad dressing I’ve ever made. Here are all the components:

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In addition to the mushrooms and ham, above, there are olive oil, wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, prepared horseradish, Parmesan cheese, garlic, basil, thyme, marjoram, parsley, salt, and pepper. To make the dressing I just dumped its dozen ingredients into my mini food processor and ran it until they combined into a cream.  Now, that’s summer cooking!

At serving time I sprinkled a little lemon juice on the mushroom slices, added the ham strips, and gently tossed everything with some of the dressing. The extra dressing I served in a little bowl for each of us to add more to our portion if we wished.

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Easy as it was to prepare, the salad was surprisingly complex in its flavors. There’s a real affinity between Serrano ham and mushrooms. Casas allows the use of Italian prosciutto in all her cured ham recipes, but the stronger, firmer Spanish ham was perfect here. I’m glad I raised the quantity of it. The dressing drew the dish together in a subtle way, with all the dressing ingredients making their small contributions to the blend. Tom, normally no great fan of salads, only regretted we couldn’t have gotten wild ovoli mushrooms instead of cultivated white ones, which would have raised the dish to even greater heights of enjoyment.

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We celebrated Independence Day this year by having good friends over for an American dinner. This was a bit of a menu challenge, since my palate, my pantry, and my parties mostly tend toward Italian and French. But I dug into my recipe collection and came up with an all-American lineup, while Tom dug into his wine storage for American wines.

We started modestly in the living room with aperitifs of Gruet brut, a champagne-method sparkling wine from New Mexico, with cocktail peanuts, cheese straws, and pickled herring to nibble on. I made the cheese straws with New York State cheddar, and the little tidbits of herring in mustard sauce were from Russ & Daughters on Houston Street, one of Manhattan’s many noted immigrant success stories.
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At table, our first course was a New Orleans favorite, Crabmeat Maison as served in Galatoire’s restaurant. I’ve written here before about making this luscious preparation for Atlantic blue-claw crabmeat. This day it paired beautifully with a 2016 Chenin Blanc from Paumanok Vineyards on Long Island.
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From there we moved to a rolled rib roast of beautifully rare beef, sourced from Ottomanelli’s of Bleecker Street, one more noted Manhattan immigrant success. This delicious centerpiece was accompanied by picnic-style vegetables: first-of-the-summer corn on the cob, new potato salad (I’ve written here about this too), a colorful heirloom tomato salad; and an ever-reliable three-bean salad, with black beans, kidneys, and chickpeas. The corn, potatoes, and tomatoes were from local farmers at my greenmarket. Our wine was a fine 2010 Petite sirah from California’s Ridge Vineyards.
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Even our cheese board held only US cheeses: Leonora, a goat; Harbison, a soft-ripening cow; Grayson, another cow; and one called Simply Sheep. All but the Grayson were new to us, and all were very good. With them we drank another excellent Ridge wine: 2010 Geyserville. (Tom has written about all these wines in his blog.)
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We concluded with small strawberry shortcakes, that quintessentially American summer dessert. Again, I’ve written about this classic recipe from the American Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. They were local strawberries, of course. This particular batch came out quite messy looking, but they tasted perfectly good.
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All that definitely made a Glorious Fourth dinner. For the final aspect of the patriotic theme, our evening’s music program was also all-American. The guests arrived to the tune of John Philip Sousa marches, and when they were all played, we listened to quiet jazz by Teddy Wilson, who, in Tom’s opinion, probably has the lightest touch of any jazz pianist ever.

Expressing patriotism is a tricky business these days, but culinary patriotism can win all available hearts, minds, and stomachs.

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