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With the annual elaborate eating season well under way, Tom and I are trying to exercise restraint by making some very humble dinners, to balance out the extravaganzas. One of our standbys is a homely plate of franks and beans. Fussbudgets as we are, however, it can’t be just any old franks or any beans. Humble doesn’t have to be boring.

We buy our frankfurters from Julian Baczynsky’s butcher store, which has been a fixture in the East Village’s Ukrainian neighborhood for 48 years.
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The big homemade veal hot dogs come in two sizes: extremely long and slender or moderately long and exceedingly fat. These are the ne plus ultra of hot dogs, tasting of their meat and gentle spices and not simply of salt, as so many commercial dogs do.
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Only the fat ones this day

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To cook either kind, we just drop them into boiling water and simmer until they’re heated through. Of course, they can also be grilled or broiled, but they’re so tasty that we find the simplest handling is best.

Selection of the beans can be a bit more variable. We do sometimes stoop to canned ones, which Tom spices up in his best alchemical style. But mainly we like to use dried beans, heirloom varieties that we buy online from Rancho Gordo and cook fairly plainly.

For this dinner I went a little fancier with the beans because of a recent post on Cooking from Books, a blog that we follow. Titled “Cheesy Bean and Tomato Bake,” it appealed to us both immediately. Author Roland Marandino often puts good twists on the recipes he writes about, and his doing so with this one encouraged me to take a little liberty with his version too.

So, where Roland made his dish with canned cannellini beans and chickpeas, I used dried cranberry beans, letting them soak overnight in cold water, where they plumped up beautifully.
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Next day I sauteed a mince of carrot, onion, and celery, stirred in the beans and their soaking water, and simmered them until they were tender – only about an hour, because Rancho Gordo’s beans are always the newest crop. Then I could pick up the instructions from Roland’s post.

I softened thinly sliced garlic cloves in olive oil; added tomato paste and sauteed that for a few minutes in an ovenproof baking dish;
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then stirred in the beans, salt, pepper, and a little of their reserved soaking water.
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I sprinkled coarsely grated mozzarella over the beans and put the dish in a 475° oven for 15 minutes, until the mozzarella melted.
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Roland suggests a final browning of the cheese under the broiler, but my beans were dryer than his, so I didn’t want to chance that. I served them just with the soft cheese topping.
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The beans were full of good flavor, and they got along just fine with the excellent franks and with a modest red wine: a very young Aglianico from Caparone (one of the few California winemakers Tom really likes). A pleasant, unpretentious little dinner.

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Back in the 1950s, turkey Tetrazzini was the height of fashionable cuisine, the stereotypical darling of “ladies who lunch.” Sort of a rich man’s chicken à la king, the dish came to mind the other day as I contemplated the generous pile of excellent roasted turkey meat our Thanksgiving hostess had sent us home with.

Browsing my cookbooks and the Internet, I quickly learned there are any number of recipes that call themselves turkey Tetrazzini, none apparently with any greater likelihood of being the one that Escoffier is said to have created and named for the renowned opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini – if indeed there’s any truth at all to that legend. I chose a recipe I found online, from a book called Almost Italian, by Skip Lombardi and Holly Chase.
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I was going to photograph the preparation process as usual, but I was pressed for time that evening and had a lot of steps to take in rapid succession. Also, I wanted a two-person version and had to cut back quantities given for 6 to 8 servings. Being a barely numerate person, I struggle to calculate things like the number of teaspoons there must be in one-third of a quarter of a cup. So the only image I have to show you is my finished dish.
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To make it, I started by cooking short rotini pasta until not quite done. Meanwhile, I cut the turkey into small chunks and thinly sliced several white mushrooms. I sauteed the mushrooms in butter. I made a sort of combination bechamel-velouté sauce with flour, butter, milk, chicken bouillon (from a cube), heavy cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

I should mention that, given the great variability in the Tetrazzini recipes I’d seen, I felt free to change some of the ingredient quantities given in my source. I used less pasta, more mushrooms, and more peas.

In a large bowl I mixed turkey, pasta, mushrooms, sauce, defrosted green peas, and grated parmigiano. Spread it all in a buttered gratin dish, sprinkled on a mix of breadcrumbs and more parmigiano, dotted the top with butter, and baked it in a moderate oven for 40 minutes.

It came out looking nicely golden. How did it taste? Well, it was OK. All those pleasant, mild ingredients coexisted peacefully enough, but there was nothing to give the dish any strong character. I don’t fault the recipe: Most of the other versions I saw would have been essentially the same. I suspect that’s just what unadventurous American taste in the ‘50s liked about turkey Tetrazzini: no palatal challenges.

Just another piece of evidence that you can’t go home again!

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On the trip to Malta that I wrote about last week, we spent one day on Gozo, the country’s second largest island. More rural than the eponymous main island, Gozo has its own full share of marvels, from megalithic to medieval, as well as lovely rolling hills and excellent traditional food. A highlight of the day for Tom and me was lunch made by the noted Gozo chef George Borg – a lunch made not just for us but partly by us.

This was a fun occasion as well as a delicious one. George is a delightful man and a very talented chef, passionate about Maltese culinary traditions, as well as about wine. When we arrived at his studio kitchen, he had work stations and aprons set out for us; and he started us right off at helping to prepare the antipasto course: his own Gozo-style ftira.
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Now, the ftira we had in Valletta, as I showed last week, was on a thick base of bread, hence fairly heavy for an antipasto. George’s version lightens it by using flaky butter pastry. We were intrigued. The topping we made that day was potatoes, onions, tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, and anchovies. I thinly sliced potatoes, Tom halved grape tomatoes, and George did the rest.

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While the ftira was baking, we moved on to preparing the next course, which was to be stuffed baked pasta shells. For the filling I mashed several little cheeselets – Malta’s ubiquitous fresh sheep cheese – with grated pecorino, chopped parsley, and black pepper.

Then, in the the most unusual way of treating pasta I’ve ever encountered, George gave Tom and me each a pastry tube filled with the cheese mixture and a pile of pasta shells to be filled with it – raw shells.

 

Once stuffed, the shells went into gratin dishes. George poured on milk to come half way up the pasta, sprinkled the dishes generously with grated pecorino, and put them in the oven to bake with the ftira.

 

Next, George brought out the fish that was to be our main course: fillets of lampuki. This autumn-season specialty is Malta’s favorite fish. Elsewhere, it’s called dorado, dolphin fish, or mahi mahi. But the ones caught here are nothing like the huge, bull-headed, pastel-hued creatures we in the US know as mahi mahi. The lampuki we saw in Malta’s fish markets were small, slender, silvery, white-fleshed fish, with no scales.

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The fillets George cut up were no more than a foot long. He said this was the end of the lampukis’ season, and that was as big as they ever got. To give us an authentic Gozo experience, he cooked them in one of the favorite local ways: just floured, shallow-fried, and served with a tomato sauce.

George’s sauce was based on his own sundried purée of tomatoes. (That is, not a purée of sundried tomatoes but a fresh tomato sauce that he’d made, spread out on trays, and left to thicken in the sunshine – much the way it’s done in Sicily.) He stirred salt, sugar, and capers into the purée, then softened chopped garlic in olive oil in a skillet, added the seasoned puree and a good slosh of water, and set it on the stove to simmer.

 

At last we sat to lunch. Our host had opened two local wines for us to choose from: a Vermentino and a Sangiovese. Naturally we tried both! They were very good. Tom has a blog post on Maltese wines that says more about these two.

 

The ftira was delicious – and quite light, thanks to the crisp, buttery flaky crust. It was hard to resist gobbling it all down, but we knew how much more there was to come.

 

Next came the baked stuffed pasta. The parts of the shells that had been in the milk were soft and fully cooked, while their top edges were firm, brown and crunchy. The milk itself had thickened into a lightly cheese-flavored cream. The mix of textures was a bit disconcerting to us – not the way we’re used to dealing with pasta. It tasted fine, but we still haven’t gotten past our sense of its oddness.

 

 

The lampuki was lovely in its simplicity – quite delicate but very flavorful – and the rich tomato sauce made an ideal complement. We relished every bite of the sweet, firm flesh, whose richness was nicely counterpointed by the acidity and brightness of the sauce.

 

George was eager to give us dessert, but after all those good dishes we couldn’t eat another thing. Tiny cups of espresso and glasses of an excellent grappa made a perfect conclusion to this wonderful meal. As we departed, with compliments on all sides, George gave us a copy of one of his cookbooks. I’m very much looking forward to trying some of his recipes!

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I’m just back from a vacation that included four days of exploring Malta. The Maltese islands – mere dots in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa – are truly fascinating. Cliffs, caves, and grottoes, Baroque palaces, medieval fortresses, 5,000-year-old megalithic temples, some the oldest stone structures in the world; and on top of all that, interesting, unusual food.

For example, here Tom and I are having a midmorning snack of pastizzi, a popular Maltese pastry resembling Neapolitan sfogliatelle but with savory fillings, usually fresh ricotta or (a relic of British rule?) mushy peas.

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Not surprisingly in an island culture, fish of all kinds were abundant and delicious. The seafood we had at two restaurants, Palazzo Preca in Valletta and Tartarun in Marsaxlokk, was all exceptionally fresh and fine.

We tried both restaurants’ versions of aljotta, Malta’s signature fish soup. Often described (unfairly, in our opinion) as an adaptation of bouillabaisse, this is a rich, dense fish broth harboring small pieces of several kinds of fish, served with fresh lemon for squeezing and crusty bread for dunking.

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Another appetizer was described on its menu as “local octopus, lemon confit, lardo, 10YO condimento, crispy quinoa, olive & mint.” (Condimento, I learned, is a prestigious kind of balsamic vinegar, this one being 10 years old.) The combination was lovely to look at and luscious to eat.

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Our main courses of seafood were equally good:

An enormous mixed fry of various fishes, squid, shrimp, and octopus

Giant prawns sautéed in garlic, white wine, and tomato, served on a bed of rice

A sauté of mussels and four kinds of clams: razor, surf, vongole veraci, and praires

The best, freshest, sweetest, grilled squid Tom has eaten in a lifetime of consuming squid at every opportunity

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We also explored non-seafood dishes, at both a lunch and a dinner at a Valletta restaurant called Nenu the Artisan Baker. It serves only traditional Maltese foods, with locally produced ingredients. Our lunch was two kinds of ftira, the Maltese equivalent of pizza. It consists of a fairly thick base of bread dough with various toppings, baked in a wood oven.

This one is called karmni s-sultana: potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, caper berries, olives, mint, and fennel seeds.

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And this one is ta’ Nenu: sundried tomatoes, black olives, peppered Maltese goat cheese, onions, Maltese sausages, capers, and thyme.

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These were hefty items, which we couldn’t possibly finish, much less go on to eat anything else for that lunch. The rest of the menu was so interesting, we decided to come back that evening for dinner. We quickly discovered that everything Nenu serves is hefty. Our appetizers would easily have done for main courses.

Here’s fwied tal-fenek: rabbit liver in a sauce of onions, garlic, prunes, anisette, and cream.

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And zalzett malti: Maltese sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with peas.

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Our affable waiter jokingly counseled us not to dip too much of the good crusty bread – the Maltese are rightly proud of their bread – in the sauces, because of the dishes yet to come. And right he was.

Here’s Tom’s kirxa, a curried tripe stew, which was served with pan-fried potatoes and garlic bread. It had several kinds of tripe, not just honeycomb, and a delicious but unusual set of curry spices that we couldn’t identify.

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And here’s my fenek moqli, described as rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine, fried in olive oil, and served in its own juices. (I’d have called it braised, though I later learned that “fried” in Malta can mean either deep-fried or sauteed.) It came with roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables.

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Our waiter delicately informed me that Maltese people eat rabbit with their fingers, because of the many small bones to be navigated around. I believe I became an honorary Maltese citizen that evening, because I ate my rabbit with my fingers too.

With that gargantuan repast, I’ll conclude this post. We had one more, very special, meal in Malta, which deserves a separate post of its own.

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One of my most reliable first courses for a company dinner is an onion tart in the manner of Alsace. (I won’t call it Alsatian – that’s a breed of dog.) I’ve made it successfully for many years: It’s always delicious and guests always enjoy it. Originally I must have based it on a recipe from somewhere, but now it’s purely mine. I have it written out for five different sizes: 10-inch, 9-inch, 8-inch, and 6-inch round pans, plus 4-inch individual tartlets.

When I have extra pastry dough in the freezer, I sometimes make one just for Beloved Spouse and myself. Though we can’t finish it all at one sitting, it never stays around long enough to lose its charm. Most recently I made us an 8-inch version.

To start, I ran a pound’s worth of Spanish onions through the two-millimeter blade of my food processor. In a large sauté pan in which I’d melted a stick of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil, the onions cooked very gently for 20 minutes, until they were very soft but not at all browned – somewhat like the start of a French onion soup.

 

 

I sprinkled two teaspoons of flour over the onions, stirred them around, and cooked for another minute, then took the pan off the heat and let the onions cool a bit while I shaped the pastry shell. I like to use a pâte brisée for this tart, but any savory pastry will do. For company I usually make a raised decorative rim of pastry, but in this case I had just enough pre-made pastry for a plain shell.

 

 

For the filling I beat 2 jumbo eggs together in a bowl with 2/3 cup each of milk and heavy cream (for company it’s sometimes crème fraiche), plus salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg. I spread the onions and their residual butter in the pastry shell and poured the filling mixture over them.

 

 

The tarts – of any size – bake for 30 to 40 minutes in a 350° oven, until they’re puffed and lightly golden on top.

 

 

They can be served hot, warm, or at room temperature. For company dinners I usually bake the tart in advance and reheat it just a little as serving time approaches.

 

 

Simple as it is, this is a lovely tart – attractive in its presentation, appetizingly light on the tongue but rich, pure, and naturally sweet from both the custard and the onions. It’s delicate because there’s no bacon or cheese, as are used in many other onion tart recipes, to make the filling heavy. This is a dish that fits well into menus for all seasons and just about any US or western European cuisine. It loves a good white wine – not necessarily from Alsace, but one from there never hurts.

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Pasta with Lentils

I’ve discovered an excellent new kind of Italian lentils. I’d thought that the small brown Umbrian lentils from Castelluccio were the best there are, but at DiPalo, a specialty food shop in NYC’s Little Italy, I found a brand called Casino di Caprafico. I couldn’t tell much about the lentils, which came in opaque cloth bags, but I trust that store, and I had a craving for pasta with lentils, so I bought a bag.

 

 

Back home, exploration of the company’s website revealed that it’s a biological farm in Abruzzo that grows heirloom varieties of grains and pulses, some made into flours and pastas. The lentils were tiny, plump, and a beautiful light golden brown. Very promising!

 

 

My recipe for pasta with lentils is in Tom’s and my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. It’s a very simple preparation. Its only major components other than lentils and pasta are finely chopped celery, onions, and carrots.

 

 

All lentils have to be picked over to discard any lurking pebbles. These were very clean. Rinsed and drained, they went into a pot with the chopped vegetables, salt, and water to cover.

 

 

It all simmered, covered, until the lentils were tender. They need a lot of water, and I don’t like to drown them right away, so I keep a kettle of water simmering and add more water in small doses as it gets absorbed. Ordinary dried lentils tend to take about an hour to be done. These little guys must have been extremely fresh, because they were ready in little more than half an hour.

At that point, the pasta went into the pot with the lentils. I use bucatini, broken into two-inch pieces. Obviously, other kinds of pasta would work too, but I like the contrast of those shapes with the lentils.

 

 

More hot water from the kettle went in as the pasta cooked, which takes about 20 minutes. It needs that long because the proportion of liquid is so much smaller than if the pasta had been boiled in the usual large quantity of water. The extra time lets the bucatini absorb some of the other flavors.

 

 

Two last essential ingredients should be passed for serving at the table: freshly ground black pepper and the best, fruitiest olive oil available – lots of both. This is one place where I always choose extra virgin olive oil. It gives the perfect finish to the dish. So here it is: humble, hearty, wholesome, and delicious. Especially when made with those lovely lentils.

 

 

(I know, I know — the pasta looks like worms. But delicious worms!)

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Do you like lamb? Tom and I do, and as far as we know, so do all our friends. But many of our compatriots don’t. Evidently, US per capita consumption of lamb is about one pound a year, and more than two-thirds of the population eat no lamb at all. How many good meals those people are missing!

Lambivores can benefit from broad ethnic food interests: The culinary traditions of France, Italy, Spain, India, and the Middle East include many appealing lamb dishes. My latest find was a recipe for lamb shanks braised in the style of southwestern France, which appears in James Villas’ Country Cooking. The dish features garlic, rosemary, onions, and red wine – strong flavors that can stand up to lamb’s own hearty flavor.

I had a little trouble following the recipe’s first steps, which were to make incisions in the shanks, insert garlic slivers into them, sprinkle on chopped rosemary, and press it onto the meat. My garlic slivers popped out as soon as I pushed them in, and the rosemary fell off as soon as the pieces of meat were moved.

 

But I kept calm and carried on, salting, peppering, and flouring the shanks as directed. Next I browned them in olive oil, having scraped all the errant bits of garlic and rosemary into the casserole along with the meat.

 

 

While they were browning, in another pan I sauteed a heap of sliced onions in butter for five minutes. Even in a nonstick skillet, they seemed to want more butter than the recipe indicated, so I indulged them.

 

 

When all the meat was browned and set aside, I deglazed the casserole with a generous quantity of red wine and reduced the liquid by half.

 

 

Then the onions went into the casserole, the lamb shanks went on top, along with a modicum of broth, salt, and pepper, and the covered casserole went into a moderate oven for a good two hours. I turned the pieces of lamb a few times as they cooked. They came out richly brown, falling-off-the-bone tender, and utterly delicious.

 

 

I really don’t understand how anyone can not like lamb! Tom has told me that in his long-ago life in central Ohio, no one ate lamb because it was “too strong.” He couldn’t even find a butcher shop that sold it. Is this US aversion to lamb a regional thing? Readers, any thoughts?

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