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Individual mozzarella soufflés make a nice, light first course for a dinner: simple, elegant, and delicious. True, all soufflés require special efforts, but these are much less trouble to make than large traditional ones. More of the preparation can be done in advance, assembly is easier, baking time is shorter, and the finished dish is not as fragile and quick to deflate as most soufflés are.

For this recipe, from Tom’s and my book La Tavola Italiana, there are two major considerations: having a lot of egg whites available (the recipe doesn’t use any yolks) and having an electric mixer capable of rapidly whipping the whites to stiffness. Those are easy for me, because (a) I often use more yolks than whites, so I keep a container of extra whites in the freezer, and (b) my heavy-duty Kitchen-Aid mixer whomps egg whites in next to no time.

Of course, the better the quality of the mozzarella you use, the better the soufflés will taste. As always with Italian cooking, the prima materia is crucial.

Are you still with me? I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone. What follows is an account of four of these little soufflés that I made the other day for dinner with my brother- and sister-in-law.

In the afternoon, well before dinnertime, I made up the sauce base. This required melting two tablespoons of butter in a pot, stirring in two tablespoons of flour, and cooking over low heat for two minutes, stirring and not letting the flour brown. Off heat, I dribbled in a cup of heavy cream, vigorously stirring to keep the mixture smooth. Then I returned the pan to low heat just long enough to stir in half a cup of grated parmigiano and eight ounces of diced mozzarella.
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This base sat at the back of the stove, uncovered and requiring no attention, for several hours. Also early in the day I defrosted ¾ cup of egg whites (six eggs’ worth) and buttered four 1½ cup ramekins and set them aside. In the evening, all that was left to do was whip the whites and fold them into the sauce base.
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For ease in getting them into and out of the oven all at once, I set the filled molds in a shallow (empty) baking pan.
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After 20 minutes at 375º the soufflés are normally done, but I think my oven needs adjustment; this time I had to give them 10 more minutes. They never do rise as high as conventional soufflés, so you don’t get airy towers of custard. But as I said above, they don’t sink as fast either, so you don’t have to sprint to get them – and your diners – to the table. Even when they do deflate a bit, they still have a lovely soft, pully texture under the thin, crisp crust. They have both intensity and delicacy of taste and texture that you wouldn’t think mozzarella would provide. In short, they’re a very satisfactory dish, well worth the effort required.
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Last week I wrote about a nearly star-crossed dinner at which several of the dishes were brutti ma buoni – ugly but good. I saved a description of the evening’s dessert for its own post, to celebrate its supreme ugliness. Here it is: my fig and almond crostata, just as it came from the oven.
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Pitiful! The attempt at this dessert came about because, all through February and March, my local markets were getting beautifully ripe black Mission figs from Mexico. After enjoying several out-of-season antipasti of prosciutto and figs, I began thinking of fig desserts. This made Tom very happy, whose passion for figs I’ve already written about in connection with a Dalmatian fig tart, so I wanted to try something new.

I found an interesting looking recipe online for a partially open-faced fig and almond crostata, so I tried a small version – one just big enough to accommodate the number of figs I had on hand. In making it I used a few shortcuts, including a batch of made pastry dough that I had in the freezer, plus a few guestimates on quantities, and was pleased when the crostata came out very well. Leftovers even kept without losing goodness for several days.

Okay! I thought: This is one to remember. Now I’ll make a full-size version for my upcoming dinner party, following the recipe exactly. That should be a really fine cap to the meal.

On the morning of the party, I washed, dried, and sliced two boxes of ripe figs. For the cream filling I ground blanched almonds with sugar in a food processor; added an egg, softened butter, a little flour, vanilla, and salt; and processed again until smooth.

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The day before, I’d made the pastry, carefully shaped it into a flattened round, and chilled it overnight. Annoyingly, when rolled out to the specified size, it didn’t hold its roundness but split into big uneven flaps between deep indentations. I hoped that might not be a problem, since I would be folding and pleating the pastry over the filling anyway, so I went ahead and spread the almond cream in the center.

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The cream filling lay much thicker than it had in my test version, and the figs had to be piled higher too. Maybe for that first one I’d rolled out too large a piece of pastry for the amount of filling? But it was good that way; maybe this will be even better.

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Still hopeful, I folded, tucked, and rounded the crostata and gave the pastry a coating of egg wash before putting it in the oven.
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Well, you saw up at the top how that came out. The filling dribbled through the weaker areas of the crust and made a big mess on the baking pan. (I’d wondered at the beginning why the recipe said to roll, shape, transfer, and bake the crostata on parchment paper. Now I knew.)

There was nothing I could do but chop away the burnt almond cream and try to close over the holes in the crust – which hadn’t browned and firmed as nicely as the earlier version did. This crostata was definitely one of the brutti.
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So ugly was it that I never let the guests see the whole dish. In the kitchen I cut individual portions as neatly as I could and brought them to the table. And they were very good!

Though the crust was softer than I’d have liked, the flavors of fig and almond were in excellent balance, and the quantity of filling seemed just right. The full amount of almond cream would, for me, have unpleasantly dominated the dish. Losing so much of it was a brutti ma buoni blessing in disguise. The passionate fig fancier agreed.

 

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There’s a rough, chunky Italian cookie that’s known as brutti ma buoni – ugly but good. At a dinner party of ours last week, the principal dishes all turned out that way: brutti ma buoni. It was one of those days when everything you touch tries to go wrong, and only luck kept the meal from being a disaster. This was the menu:

Mozzarella in Carozza
Spaghetti all’Amatriciana
Stuffed and Rolled Flank Steak
Sauteed Swiss Chard
Assorted Cheeses
Fig and Almond Crostata

I can’t blame unfamiliarity with these dishes, because I’d made them all before; most were even from Tom’s and my own recipes. Mercifully, Vicky and John, our guests for that evening, are good sports as well as adventurous eaters, so they were unperturbed by the appearance of their plates.

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The first setback was the antipasto, my mozzarella in carozza.

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This should have been a good-looking dish, as well as a delicious one. It’s made with slices of bread and slices of mozzarella, floured, egged, pressed together, and fried in olive oil. I’ve made this successfully for years (even wrote about it here once), but this time the egged bread tried to fall apart, and the mozzarella broke through its supposed-to-be-golden crust. Though it didn’t look at all appetizing, it still tasted much as it ought, and we all ate it happily enough, along with a little sauce of anchovy, butter, and cream.
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The spaghetti all’amatriciana also was from one of my recipes, this one in La Tavola Italiana.

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The only thing wrong with the pasta this evening was that the classic recipe uses bucatini, not spaghetti, and I only discovered that I didn’t have enough bucatini for four when it was too late to run out and buy more. Though very plain-looking, the dish tasted especially good because the tomato sauce was enriched by a particularly flavorful artisan variety of guanciale (air-cured pork jowl) that we’d smuggled in (shh!) from our last trip to Rome.
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But then came the stuffed flank steak: braciolone alla napoletana, yet another recipe from La Tavola Italiana. To get the full effect of this near-disaster requires several illustrations.

The flank steak, butterflied by our butcher

 

The stuffing ingredients: prosciutto ground together with parsley and garlic, plus golden raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, an egg, and grated pecorino romano

 

The flank steak trimmed and spread with the stuffing

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Now, here was the first problem: Which way should I roll that meat? Starting at the short side would have made a great blimp of a cylinder, with many opportunities for the filling to leak out during the cooking. So I rolled from the long side, making a long skinny tube.
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The size of it presented the second problem: Do I have a pot that will hold a 14-inch long roll? It had to be my ancient, rarely used 13-quart Creuset Dutch oven. (I could hardly lift the 21-pound monster out of its place in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet.)

Starting to brown the roll, along with chopped onion, carrot, and celery

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I’d placed the roll in the pot seam-side down, hoping it would seal. Nope! What it did was spread open as far as it could around the strings, as the meat shrank during the cooking. With the stuffing exposed that way, I didn’t dare turn the roll at all for the hour of slow, gentle cooking it would need. So I poured in white wine and diluted tomato paste, covered the pot, and looked in every 15 minutes to baste the meat with the juices and be sure it wasn’t sticking to the pot.

When fully cooked, the roll was definitely brutti.
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Maneuvering the meat out of that deep pot onto a cutting board without its breaking apart was a little tricky but we did it. And despite my fears, when I cut off the strings it stayed intact. In fact, it divided into not-bad-looking thick chunks for serving.

And if I do say so myself, the beef and its stuffing were both delicious: genuinely buoni.
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In retrospect, I can see it was a mistake to spread the stuffing all over the butterflied steak. In previous (forgotten, evidently) cases, I must have mounded the stuffing in the center and closed the meat over it, with enough overlap to ensure the stuffing stayed covered. I’d better annotate my recipe to that effect, to avoid imperiling future dinners.

The cheese tray, requiring no cooking or manipulation, was safely beyond my ability to harm it, but my dessert, the fig and almond tart, was one more barely averted disaster. I’ll save the rest of that story for my next post.

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Whenever I cook duck legs for dinner, Tom and I remark that we should have them more often. These small, neat packets of succulence are far easier to prepare – and have a higher proportion of meat to bone and fat – than a whole duck. Legs aren’t always available in stores, however, so on our occasional day trips out to eastern Long Island I always try to get some from a poultry farm that we patronize.

That part of Long Island has long been famous for raising Pekin ducks. Back in the 1930s it’s said that there were as many as 90 duck farms in the area. One that I remember fondly from family summer vacations in my youth was this one, known to all and sundry as The Big Duck.
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This 30-foot long, 20-foot high creature was originally the duck farm’s retail store. Now a tourist center and gift shop, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Back now to my kitchen, where I looked through my books for something luscious to do with a pair of my recently acquired legs. I found it in an unexpected place: Venetian Cooking, by H.F. Bruning Jr. and Cavaliere Umberto Bullo. The authors frankly say “in the Venetian diet poultry comes a bad third after seafood and meat,” but they provide a handful of recipes for it, including one for Anatra in Umido, braised duckling. (Maybe, since ducks are waterfowl, Venetians think of them as feathered fish?)

Italian duck breeds being much less fatty than Pekins, I did have to scrape some fat from my legs, but they didn’t have the gobs and layers of it that other parts of a duck’s anatomy have. I suppose that’s because legs do all the work in the water, which keeps them muscular, while the rest of the body just floats along on top, fat keeping it warm.
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As often is the case, I was scaling down a recipe for a whole cut-up duck, so my faithful knife man did the initial job of chopping two stalks of celery, a third of a large onion, and a third of a carrot. While he was doing that, I heated a flameproof casserole and lightly browned the legs in butter and olive oil.
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The legs came out to a plate and the vegetables went in, to cook gently over low heat.
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When the onions were translucent, I stirred in salt, pepper, and just a little liquid – 4 teaspoons of tomato sauce and 2½ tablespoons of water – returned the legs to the pot, and brought the liquid to a simmer.
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From this point on, all the dish requires is patience: It took two hours of simmering, but the result was well worth the time. The legs were fork-tender and luscious, and the nubbly sauce was a rich melange of vegetable flavors. Crisp sautéed potatoes and good Italian frozen peas made excellent foils for both meat and sauce.
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“Rich” and “luscious” are unquestionably overworked words in the food vocabulary, but they’re unavoidably accurate to describe a fine duck dish like this one.

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It’s always a happy surprise when new recipes turn out better than I’d expected. The above homey-looking dinner plate holds two excellent dishes from Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain. This is the book that first introduced me to Spanish cooking and the one I most often rely on. It has never let me down, and I still continue to discover good new things in it.

This time I was initially struck by a recipe called Higado con Pimientos, which had an uncommon pairing of calf’s liver and green peppers. Liver and onions is a classic combination, but I’d never seen green peppers used in a dish with liver. Casas also recommended a potato dish, Patatas Picantes, as an accompaniment. Curiosity led me to try them.

The ingredients for two portions of both recipes were easily assembled: liver, sliced Bell peppers, sliced onions, minced garlic, a potato parboiled and sliced, and a few condiments.
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The first things to be cooked were the peppers and onions. We have peppers and onions often, but I do them in the Italian manner, which is to say together in one pan. For this dish they were done separately: first the onions, sautéed in olive oil and removed to a dish; then the peppers, briefly sauteed in the same pan, then covered, fully cooked, and removed to the dish. Finally the liver was quickly sauteed in the same pan, with a little more oil.
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Meanwhile, I’d been also cooking the boiled, sliced potatoes – sauteeing them in a different pan until lightly browned and then stirring in minced garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, and pimentòn dulce (Spanish smoked paprika).
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When the liver came out of its pan, I deglazed it with white wine, reduced the liquid, poured that over the liver, and put it in a serving dish in a turned-off oven to keep warm.

The final step was to reheat the peppers and onions in their original pan, season them with salt and pepper, spread them over the liver, and serve.
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These were the simplest procedures, yet they had remarkably subtle effects. Sauteeing the onions and peppers separately, in the same oil, and then finishing them in the remnants of the liver oil and the deglazing sauce, made the vegetables quite different from Italian peppers and onions: they didn’t blend together but each stayed itself, with just overtones of the other components’ flavors. And the liver had taken on the same multi-flavor hints from the vegetables’ sauteeing oil and the deglazing sauce. I was very happily surprised by how the peppers’ natural acidity made them a wonderful foil for the sweetness of calves’ liver and the onions.

The potatoes – with crunchy edges and soft interiors – loved their zingy spices and made an excellent counterpoint to the gentle harmony of peppers, onions, and liver.

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Altogether, a very interesting pair of dishes and a very enjoyable simple meal.

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Yes, spring is just a week away, but winter has not started loosening its grip yet. There are still days that are so raw and cold and windy that I can hardly force myself to get out of the house even for essential errands. When I do, nothing thaws me out and comforts me like coming home to a bowl of hearty homemade soup.

I like trying new soup recipes, as regular readers of this blog should know: I’ve published posts about more than 30 kinds. One of my good sources is Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Its soup chapter contains 19 recipes, several of which I’ve made. I wrote about two of them here. This time around, I tried two more.

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First I made a simple Barley and Leek Soup, which the recipe said would serve four. I started by chopping two leeks, a stalk of celery, and a carrot, and sauteeing them in olive oil along with a sprinkling of thyme.
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Next I was to add a cup of barley and 6 cups of broth, bring it to a simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, or until the barley was tender. Tom, who had been looking on with a knife expert’s interest while I chopped the vegetables, totally disbelieved the quantity of barley. “That’s going to absorb all the liquid and swell to triple the amount!” he warned. I knew he was probably right, but I was determined to follow the recipe, and I did.

It was way too much barley. It swelled to about four times its bulk and indeed absorbed all the liquid, ending up as thick as a risotto. The recipe didn’t even say to cover the pot, but I did, given that long cooking time. It did say I could add a little water if it was too thick at the end. A little? I had to stir in two whole cups of water, just to turn it back into a soup.

Diluted down, seasoned generously with salt and pepper, and topped with grated parmigiano, the soup came out well. I would have liked the leek to be more prominent: less barley would have made for a better balance. But the soup’s mild flavor and soft texture were very comforting.
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And it’s a good thing that it was a good soup, because that four-serving recipe made enough for at least eight. Happily, soups freeze well.

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A few days later, with my soup jones still pestering me, I turned to the book’s Lentil, Potato and Spinach Soup. This recipe was to serve 4 to 6. With caution born of the preceding experience, I considered the fact that it called for a whole cup of lentils and decided to make half a recipe’s worth.

This time, I put chopped carrot, celery, and onion, plus rosemary and thyme, into the soup pot with olive oil and cooked for 10 minutes to soften the vegetables.
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I added a minced clove of garlic and continued cooking for a minute; stirred in half a cup of lentils and a tablespoon of tomato paste; and added a diced all-purpose potato, salt, pepper, and three cups of water. As before, I simmered the soup for 45 minutes, stirring often to keep the lentils from sticking to the bottom of the pot. And as before, the lentils behaved just like the barley and absorbed so much water they made a porridge. I had to add another whole cup of water to bring it back to soup.

For the last step, I tore up enough cleaned spinach leaves to pack into a one-cup measure, stirred them into the soup, and continued cooking just long enough to wilt them. At serving time, as the recipe suggested, I drizzled olive oil onto each bowlful.

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This was also a good soup – a little more complex in flavor than the previous one. The lentils were the prominent ingredient, with the spinach and potatoes offering nice color and texture contrasts. And, as I’d suspected it would, the “two-serving” half recipe made four generous bowlfuls.

I have to wonder if there was a copyediting glitch somewhere in that book. But look on the bright side: With people to feed, a recipe that makes too much is better than one that makes too little.

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The other day I idly pulled out my copy of Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking. I’ve had the book ever since it appeared in 1978 but have rarely used it in recent years. Turning pages, I found many recipes I’d completely forgotten about.

Now, I yield to nobody in my reverence for Marcella – “the first name in Italian cooking,” as she was billed in her early days – but this, her second book, is not in my opinion equal to her first. There she stayed mainly in her comfort zone of Bolognese and Emilia-Romagna cooking, but here she broadens out to other Italian regions. I feel that her southern Italian recipes, especially, don’t reflect the sure hand she had with the dishes of her native region.

Ignoring those reservations on this occasion, I was attracted to her Sicilian recipe for Bocconcini di Pesce Spada Fritto – fried swordfish tidbits. In the headnote she says Sicily has the finest swordfish in the world. From my admittedly modest experience in that region, I agree. She also says this preparation keeps swordfish “as moist and tender as it was when it first came out of the sea.” For that, I’d give it a try.

The recipe needs fairly thin slices of the fish. I was able to get my local fish store to butterfly a New-York-standard-sized swordfish steak to yield two more or less ¾-inch thick pieces.
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I cut them into smaller pieces, as directed, and put them into a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, salt, and pepper for two hours at room temperature, turning the “tidbits” occasionally.
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Then they had to be patted dry and dipped in egg and flour to be ready for frying.
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Next, I may have made a bad mistake. I had some lightly used frying oil that could handle one more use, so I poured it into a pan and got it hot – without rechecking the recipe’s instruction. Which, I saw when I did look back, called for only ¼ inch of oil. Mine was over an inch deep. Well, I said to myself, this fish is to be fried, not sauteed. Surely it will cook just as well, and probably even faster, this way. So in the pieces went.
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They took quite a bit longer than I expected to develop the indicated light golden crust, and even though I’d carefully shaken off the excess egg and the excess flour, the coating seemed unusually thick and rough.
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To my regret, I can only call this dish mediocre. The swordfish had stayed moist, all right, but the strong flavor of eggy, oily crust was the predominant note on the palate. That, and maybe also the oil in the marinade, seemed to increase, rather than counteract, swordfish’s natural oiliness. Even fresh lemon juice couldn’t redeem it.

Possibly my fish steak wasn’t as fresh as it could have been? I loved all the swordfish I’d eaten in Sicily. Maybe if my fish had been caught in the Straits of Messina, by the local ages-old method, and brought to the table within a day, it would have been a whole different thing. Maybe I ruined it by my inattention to detail in the frying. Or maybe Marcella didn’t entirely succeed in translating the Sicilian dish for the American kitchen. Or possibly all of the above: there are days like that.

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