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Despite the excessively hot weather we’re having, summer must be starting to wind down: The first local cauliflower is appearing in my Greenmarket. Unseasonable as that seems, I was glad to see it. There’s a dish I’ve been interested in trying for which I’d need a small cauliflower. This little bronzy-green head just filled the bill.
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The recipe I had in mind, from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India, is called Cauliflower with Peas. Cauliflower has a strong affinity for Indian spices, as I know from enjoyable meals in Indian restaurants, and this recipe uses a good range of them – mustard seeds, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and asafetida. (Shameful confession here: In every Indian dish I’ve ever made that calls for a pinch of asafetida, I’ve skipped it. And so I did again this time. I haven’t missed it.)

My one-pound cauliflower produced a generous half pound of florets, which I matched with a third of a cup of green peas. The remaining ingredients, all classically Indian, are a fresh hot green chile, a small tomato, grated fresh ginger, and a little chopped cilantro. Indian cooking moves fast, so I had to slice the chile and chop the tomato before going any farther.
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Once all was ready I heated olive oil in a nonstick skillet and threw in the mustard seeds. As soon as they began to pop I added the chile slices and gave them a few stirs.
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Next in went the tomatoes, salt, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and ginger, to be stir-fried for a few minutes.

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Finally, the cauliflower and peas, plus a little water.
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This was to simmer, covered, for 10 minutes or until the cauliflower was tender. Well, my cauliflower was not about to be rushed. I had to add three more doses of water and keep things simmering for almost 15 further minutes until the vegetable softened.  Early-season cauliflower are apparently pretty dense.

In an Indian meal the dish would have been ready to serve now, sprinkled with the chopped cilantro. But Jaffrey had offered a very different alternative in her recipe headnote, which I couldn’t resist trying. “I often mix it with cooked penne pasta and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese,” she said.

So I slid my covered skillet to the back of the stove, got some water boiling, and cooked up a batch of penne. Ecco! and namaste.
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It was a very pretty, very fragrant dish. It was also somewhat dry, though, with not enough moist sauce to be absorbed by and flavor the pasta. A big splash of olive oil along with the grated cheese on each dish helped, but essentially the two main components didn’t do anything for each other. The cauliflower itself was fine, with a strong kick from the serrano chile. The peas, tomato, and cilantro mostly blended into a spicy pulp that clung nicely to the florets. But the pasta just sat among the vegetables and appreciated the olive oil and Parmigiano.

Well, no harm done, but no kitchen magic in that combination, either. I’d be happy to make the cauliflower preparation again in the context of an Indian meal, where I think it will be excellent, but I won’t try to bridge the two-cultures gap this way again.

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Eggs à la tripe popped into my mind the other day. Why, I don’t know – I hadn’t made them in more than 20 years. Nor do I know why I hadn’t: We’d definitely liked them on the few occasions I did. Somehow they just disappeared from my repertoire. If you’re not familiar with the dish, don’t be put off by the name: There’s no actual tripe in it.

As I recalled it, oeufs à la tripe was a very simple French preparation: just hard-boiled eggs and softly sauteed onions in a sauce of béchamel with gruyère. But, for the details, I had to figure out which of my cookbooks I’d found the recipe in.

Larousse Gastronomique, La Bonne Cuisine de Madame Saint Ange, Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine, Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, and the Time-Life Good Cook egg volume were all ruled out because they don’t use gruyère in their oeufs. The Dione Lucas Book of French Cooking does call for cheese, but it’s a much more complex dish than the one I remembered. Clearly, the dish I remembered isn’t the primary or classic version. But it’s the one I wanted to have. On a hunch I checked Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, and there I recognized my simple recipe. My research method may be haphazard, but its results are sound.

So merrily into the kitchen I went and set to work. My faithful knife man sliced half a very large Spanish onion for me, which I softened slowly in butter, covering the pan partway through so the onions wouldn’t brown and stiffen.
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While the onions cooked I sliced four jumbo eggs that I’d hard-boiled the previous day.
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Back at the cooking onions, I sprinkled on salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of flour; stirred the flour in well; and gradually stirred in 1⅓ cups of milk – thus making the béchamel right on top of the onions. When the sauce thickened, I stirred in ⅓ cup of shredded gruyère and let that melt in.
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Finally I gently folded the sliced eggs into the sauce, trying hard to keep them from falling apart. Snatched tastes of that sauce, by the way, were even better than Tom or I had remembered. Might have been given an extra boost by the excellent cave-aged gruyère I had on hand that day.

At that point the eggs are ready to eat just as they are, over toast or rice, the recipe says. But it has an alternative serving suggestion: spread the mixture in a gratin dish, dot with a little more butter, and run it under the broiler to brown lightly. I liked that, because it could all be prepared well in advance and just finished at dinner time.
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That evening we had the eggs and their lovely sauce alongside grilled boudin noir sausages. They made a nice sloppy summer supper, and an excellent match to a lightly chilled red Burgundy.
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A Coffee Story

Coffee first thing in the morning is absolutely essential at my house, and when I say coffee I mean espresso: two cups apiece to start the heart and brain functioning. Plus occasional after-dinner coffees. It was therefore a serious crisis for two fussy and demanding caffeine fanciers when our beloved Pasquini Livia espresso machine started dying on us.
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The best machine we’d ever had, Livia gave us excellent espresso for 14 years. About two months ago it started making horrible metallic grinding noises, the backflush stopped working, making excess water clog up in the coffee filter cup, and the espresso began coming out too bitter and without crema. We could tell the machine was in terminal decline. Attempts to locate a repair service failed, so we resolved to euthanize it before it could explode in our faces.

We found that to replace our Livia with the current model would cost at least $1,700, with an estimated two-month waiting period for delivery from Italy. We hadn’t paid anything near that much in 2004, even with inflation factored in. (We’d gotten the machine from Illy, at a deep promotional discount, in return for agreeing to buy a year’s worth of shipments of Illy’s ground espresso coffee.) The new price was a shock: Time to look at other brands!

We began looking for a high-quality, no-frills pump machine – no capsules, no built-in milk frothing container, not even an integrated bean grinder. Much as we love espresso, we aren’t part of the current barista fetishism. Online reviews of the major brands were discouraging: at all price points, up to 15% of purchasers reported delivery damage, rapid breakdowns, water leaks, pressure failures, flimsy plastic parts, excessive noise, and/or horrible warranty service. Small enough odds, perhaps, but way too many possible flaws for us.

Then we somehow found Lelit. This is a maker of espresso machines designed and produced in Italy. On the website, its straightforward, clean-lined Anna model looked like just what we wanted, at a price we could tolerate.
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Lelit is not well known in this country, so there aren’t many reviews of its machines, but the ones we saw (e.g., here) gave us confidence, not only in the product’s quality but in the service by its US distributor in nearby New Jersey. We took a chance and ordered one.

The first pleasant surprise was the machine’s arrival in just two days – in excellent protective packaging. The second was how light it is, for all its sturdiness: our Livia weighed 38 pounds; smaller Anna weighs only 16 – therefore much easier to move around, if need be. The detailed instruction book is in three languages, including clear, grammatical English. Setting the machine up, turning it on, and drawing two coffees worked exactly as described. Hooray!
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Our first cups weren’t ideal: good crema, but a sort of bitter metallic edge to the flavor. Since Livia had always preferred Illy’s dark roast ground coffee to any other, we’d stayed with it for all those years. Maybe Anna would be happier with a different kind? So we tried alternatives, including a lighter-roast Illy variety.
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None of them made much of a difference. But as we continued using the new machine, the espresso it produced kept improving. (It’s also amazingly quiet.) Apparently it just needed to be broken in. Finally, we decided that we still like the Illy dark roast best. It’s by far the most expensive, selling in some stores for as much as $16 for a 250-gram can. But we’ve found places to get it for $11. That works out to 22¢ a cup, which is certainly not extravagant.  If you compare it to the bilgewater that passes for espresso at some popular chains, it’s an absolute bargain, even if it takes another 14 years to amortize the cost of the new machine.
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As of this writing, we’ve had Anna for only a month, so it would be the height of presumption to declare a happy ending to this coffee story already . . .  but so far, so good!  Brains and hearts continue to start every morning, and the palate is getting happier by the day.

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In every book of Martin Walker’s “Mystery of the French Countryside” series, police chief Bruno Courrèges finds time between pursuing criminals and preserving the peace in his Périgord village to make fabulous meals for his friends. When Bruno cooks, readers are right there in the kitchen with him, and for enthusiastic home cooks, the urge to step in and help out is almost irresistible.

A dinner Bruno makes in The Templars’ Last Secret did prove irresistible for Tom, our friend Hope, and me this week. Being all Bruno devotees, we were intrigued by this very unusual menu of his and decided to try making it for ourselves:

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice
Fish Soup
Blanquette de Veau with Rice
Salad and Cheese
Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

Of course we couldn’t reproduce that meal exactly: Much of what Bruno eats he grows or gathers for himself, or else buys from artisans at his village’s outdoor market. But we came as close as we could.

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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Bruno wasn’t originally planning to have this course, but one of his guests, a young Haitian woman from the Ministry of Justice, brings him a jar of épice, her mother’s version of Haiti’s all-purpose spicy green sauce. Bruno opens a can of his homemade venison pâté so everyone can taste Amélie’s gift with it.

We couldn’t find a venison pâté, so we substituted a rabbit terrine and created our own épice with guidance from recipes on the Web. It was very easy to make. We simply pureed small amounts of green and red Bell peppers, two hot Serrano peppers, a tiny red onion, scallions, garlic cloves, lots of parsley, and a little basil in the food processor.

It was a lively sauce, tasting bright and intensely vegetal at first, with a sneaky zing of heat just as you were swallowing. It gave a nice lift to the lushness of the terrine. We could even have taken it a bit hotter – maybe try a Scotch bonnet pepper next time. With this appetizer Bruno served a sparkling Bergerac rosé wine. We drank an Alsace crémant, a regional transgression that nevertheless worked quite nicely.

 

Fish Soup

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One way to tell this must be a Périgord recipe is that it starts by cooking diced potatoes and crushed garlic in a casserole with duck fat. Fish soup made with duck fat! – totally new to us. Fortunately, I had duck fat in the refrigerator, so we were off to an authentic start. Continuing to do as Bruno did but guessing on quantities, most of which aren’t given in the story, we then added cubes of fresh cod, chopped canned tomatoes, stock that we’d made from shrimp shells, and a glass of white Bergerac. All that simmered along until the fish was done, when we adjusted the salt, poured in another glass of the wine, stirred in chopped parsley, and served.

It was unexpectedly rich and hearty for a thin-bodied soup made so simply from cod. We could just detect an undertone of the shrimp-shell stock’s flavor. The wine also made a definite contribution. We were lucky to have found that bottle of Bergerac. It’s uncommon here and was very distinctive: slightly herbal-spicy and only barely not sweet. But there was something more unusual in the soup’s flavor that we struggled to identify. Finally we remembered: the duck fat! It gave the soup an almost meaty essence. We three liked it as much as Bruno’s guests did. And we, like them, happily drank white Bergerac with it.

 

Blanquette de Veau

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Even at first reading, we were each struck by the oddity of serving a soup and a stew at the same meal. We were still dubious about it after deciding to make the full menu, but we put our trust in Bruno and went ahead.

To save some work on the cooking afternoon – and since stews are always better the second day – Hope undertook to prepare the blanquette herself on the preceding day and bring the finished dish to us. This entailed simmering two pounds of cut-up veal with aromatic vegetables, separately sauteeing a pound each of shallots and mushrooms in butter, thickening the veal cooking liquid, and stirring in the veal, shallots, mushrooms, and much heavy cream.

The blanquette was luscious, especially since Hope had used shiitake for half the mushrooms, instead of all small whites. The sauce had perversely not thickened quite as much as it should have, but it made a delicious dipping medium for crusty bread, as well as a sauce for the rice. With this course, Bruno served Pécharmant, a light red Bergerac wine made in Bordeaux-blend style. We had a modest Bordeaux wine of the same grape blend.

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

We know Bruno intended to have salad and cheese at this meal. Before the guests arrive, he picks and washes salad greens from his garden and takes cheese out of his refrigerator. But that’s the last they’re heard of. As the dinner progresses, Bruno offers second helpings of the blanquette, and in the next paragraph he brings in the dessert. Well, even Homer nods. We had our salad and cheese, but to honor Bruno’s omission, I didn’t take a photo of them.

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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Bruno poaches his pears in red wine to cover, with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and half a glass of his own vin de noix. We did the same except for the walnut liqueur, which is unattainable here. Also, Bruno seems to have left his pears whole, but we halved and cored ours first, because they’re so much easier to both cook (less wine, less time) and eat (no maneuvering around the cores) that way. We did, however, follow his manner of serving them, with a splash of sparkling wine and a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream in each bowl. To make up for the absence of vin de noix, we awarded ourselves glasses of Bruno’s favorite dessert wine, Monbazillac.

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We three thoroughly enjoyed each part of this meal, as well as the making of it. But, for all our admiration of Bruno and his creator, we can’t commend the dinner as a whole. For us, the sequence of soup and stew didn’t work. The two dishes were too similar in color, texture, and general character for the palatal contrasts that are part of the pleasure of a truly great meal. Just too much of the same thing – especially with the richness of the duck fat, cream, and butter. We’d had greater success with the harmony of a previous Bruno feast we’d tried.

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Ever since local summer fruits began appearing in our greenmarkets, Someone in my household has become passionate about fruit desserts. He’s happy with any kind I make, as long as it’s fruity. (He claims he’s fighting scurvy.) To his delight, I’ve gone through strawberries, blueberries, and cherries, tried early nectarines and plums (too soon) and am now moving to peaches. I have a favorite greenmarket farm stand, which brings its produce up from southern New Jersey – a region as famous in our part of the world for peaches as it is for tomatoes.

This week there were four ripe peaches in my refrigerator needing to be used, and Someone was looking at me with hungry puppy eyes as we discussed upcoming days’ dinner plans. I could see where my responsibilities lay.

Out came those peaches, to be dipped in boiling water, skinned, and halved for a pie – of sorts.
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What I was about to make was a recipe in Joy of Cooking called simply Peach Pie, which I’d discovered several years ago and which was unlike any fruit pie I’d ever made or seen. At the time, I thought it was weird: To begin with, it wasn’t even an actual pie, because it had no top crust at all – so, more of a tart. The peaches weren’t to be sliced but left in halves. And there was a peculiar slurry to be poured around the fruit before baking, which sounded unattractive. But this was the ever-reliable Irma Rombauer’s recipe, so I gave it a try. To my surprise, it was terrific, and it has been a standard of mine ever since.

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This day, I made up a basic pastry dough for a one-crust pie, rested it briefly in the refrigerator, lined a medium-sized pie dish with it, and arranged my peach halves in it. I’d have been happier with one more peach to fill it more generously, but the four I had were just about enough.
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Over them I poured that slurry, made from 1 egg, 2 tablespoons of flour, ⅔ cup of granulated sugar, and 2 ounces of melted butter. It’s always thick and gummy, not at all dessert-looking, but I’ve learned to trust it.
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The pie baked for 15 minutes at 400°, then another 50 minutes at 300°. Out it came, looking much the way it had looked going in, except that the slurry had firmed up enough that the fruit appeared to have been set in a pool of slightly moist concrete.
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All this notwithstanding, the pie was delicious, as always. The peaches were soft and sweet, and the slurry had become a tender custard, lightly peach-flavored and far more attractive to the palate than to the eye. Rombauer prefers serving the pie warm, but we like it cool. If cool, she recommends whipped cream on top, but for home use we find it perfectly fine just plain.
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Someone was very happy that evening. And the next day at breakfast, too. Scurvy was fended off for another few days.

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We could have taken our Fourth of July picnic up to a table on our building’s roof garden, but it was still ghastly hot and humid that evening, and since the elevators don’t go up to the roof, we’d have had to shlep food, drink, and all their accouterments up a sweltering stairwell. So our foursome picnicked in the dining room in air-conditioned comfort.

Tom created a dandy little hors d’oeuvre for the occasion – a sort of micro-mini ballpark hot dog. He fried two slices of sandwich bread in butter, spread them with yellow mustard, cut them in one-inch squares, and laid a chunk of frankfurter on each. Half of them received a round of homemade bread-and-butter pickle under the frank, and the other half were topped with a piece of cornichon. Both were very tasty, but we all agreed the bread-and-butter-pickle version had the edge.

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The main event opened rather elegantly with Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison. A few years ago I wrote a post about making this specialty of the famous New Orleans restaurant. It’s a luscious dish and always a favorite.
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After that came the more traditional picnic-y foods.

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My potato salad, made with the season’s first new potatoes, thinly sliced, a little red onion, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and homemade mayonnaise.
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Tom’s macaroni salad, with bits of celery, bell pepper, red onion, and tomato; dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and the same mayonnaise.
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A broiled flank steak with Tom’s minimal barbecue sauce: his own seasoned ketchup, Worcestershire, and chipotle Cholula. It makes a light coating, penetrating the meat just enough to liven up its own flavor.
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There was also corn on the cob – white corn, first of the season, wonderfully fresh and sweet – chunked heirloom tomatoes, and a crusty baguette; all set out family style and attacked with enthusiasm and old-fashioned boardinghouse reach.
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To finish the meal we had a nectarine cake, which I make from a Joy of Cooking recipe called Plum Cake Cockayne. It’s a regular summer dessert of mine, sweet, easy, and good with any stone fruit. It was consumed with alacrity, even though everyone protested how full they already were. That’s the magic of fruit desserts.
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I keep a lot of dried beans in the pantry, but whenever I consider them in the context of French cooking, all that usually comes to mind is cassoulet. I know the French eat beans in more ways than that, but I have to run through many good bean dishes from Italy, Mexico, and the USA before I can come up with any from France.

To broaden my leguminous education, I turned to the Dried Beans and Grains volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. There I found several French recipes for beans. I was intrigued by Haricots Blancs au Vin Rouge – white beans in red wine sauce – because the book it’s credited to is The Nouvelle Cuisine of Jean & Pierre Troisgros. I hadn’t thought nouvelle cuisine had been interested in anything as solidly old-fashioned as beans, but there it was.

I quickly saw that the Troisgros brothers’ way of handling beans here was unusual – maybe that would be the nouvelle-ness of the dish? There are two standard ways of starting to work with dried beans: either soak them overnight in cold water, or give them a two-minute boil followed by a two-hour soak in the hot water. Either way, they’ll swell a lot and soften a little. This recipe said just to soak them for two hours in warm water. Really – only that? I did it, with a cup of white beans (the classic French Tarbais type). You can see by the “before” and “after” shots below, the beans hardly changed at all.
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Next, I was to put them and their soaking water in a pot with some carrot, onion, a clove, and a bouquet garni. I tied half a bay leaf, a little pile of parsley, and a sprinkle of dried thyme in a piece of cheesecloth, stuck a clove in a small spring onion, and peeled half a carrot. The beans and their seasonings were then to be brought to a boil, skimmed, and simmered “about one hour, or until tender.”
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It was clear there wasn’t nearly enough water there to last for an hour. I added more, and put a kettle on to boil water for further use. There was also nothing to skim; what could there have been? The recipe didn’t even say to cover the pot for the simmering, which would have dried out the beans well before the hour was up. I covered it.

After the hour and another addition of boiling water, the beans had begun to swell but were still stone-hard.
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Another hour of simmering, more added water – nope, still not done. (These were not old beans, by the way; they were just last season’s crop.) Finally, after 2½ hours, the beans were tender, and I could move on to the next step. Which was, in a separate pot, to sauté a large chopped shallot in butter for two minutes, covered, then add six tablespoons of red wine and boil it down almost to dryness.
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The beans were to be drained and put into that pot, along with a chopped clove of garlic and some black pepper, and be cooked over low heat for 10 minutes. The mixture was so dry, I took it on myself to add some of the beans’ liquid. I also decided this was the time to stir in some much-needed salt, which, though on the recipe’s list of ingredients, was never mentioned anywhere in the instructions.

The semi-final step was to stir 2½ tablespoons of butter into the beans and “sauté” until the butter melted. (An odd choice of verb for a dense pot of beans, I thought.)
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The recipe stated that by then the beans “should bathe lightly in a broth,” and if they didn’t, to now add a few spoonsful of their cooking liquid. Unfortunately, the extra cooking time, both before and after the butter, had put too much stress on my already lengthily simmered beans: they were partially pureeing themselves. More liquid now would have had them not bathing in a broth but wallowing in a mud puddle. (Perhaps some fear of that eventuality prompted the very final instruction: to sprinkle chopped parsley over the beans in their serving bowl.)
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When we ate the beans I was relieved to find that, while the texture was wrong, the taste was fine. Ironically, at first bite, though they were totally meatless, we both thought that they tasted like cassoulet! That was due to their very smooth, complex flavor. You couldn’t identify the component tastes of onion, shallot, garlic, wine, and butter: All had blended into the beans and given them a sophisticated new identity – so French!

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This recipe remains a puzzlement to me, however. I feel sure my beans wouldn’t have taken so very long to cook if I’d I used a standard bean soaking method at the outset, and I can’t understand the purpose of the recipe’s short soak – or the fact that it neither specified enough water to last until the beans were tender nor acknowledged the possible need for extra water. There’s also the oddity of calling for a cover for the two-minute sauté of the shallots but not for the long simmering of the beans or their ten minutes’ cooking with the wine reduction. I can’t help wondering about the accuracy of the recipe’s translation from the original French.

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