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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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I tried an unusual shrimp dish this week. Most of the time, when I serve shrimp it’s either in a traditional shrimp cocktail – briefly boiled, chilled, and dressed with a spicy ketchup-based sauce – or cooked in a way that uses a lot of fat: frying, sautéeing, or broiling with butter or olive oil. Itself almost pure lean protein, shrimp seems to revel in being bathed in tasty fats.

There’s very little fat in the recipe for shrimp au poivre I found in Joyce Goldstein’s Kitchen Conversations. The premise of the entire book is capitalizing on balancing contrasting flavors. In this recipe the contrasts are shrimp for sweetness, lemon juice and zest for sourness, and garlic and black pepper for heat. Goldstein says her inspiration was steak au poivre, in which the meat is coated with cracked peppercorns, sauteed, and served with a deglazing sauce.

I’ve had mixed success with this book’s recipes, so I was skeptical about whether shrimp could really handle the amount of pepper this one calls for, but interested enough to try it. I scaled down the recipe quantities by a third to provide two portions and assembled the ingredients.
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You see up there two generous teaspoons of coarsely ground Tellicherry pepper. Actually, the recipe called for cracked pepper, but I’ve never enjoyed the sensation of biting into peppercorn chunks, so I took the liberty of making that change.
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Moving right along, I salted the shrimp lightly and seared them quickly in minimal olive oil.

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I took out the shrimp, deglazed the pan with white wine and fish stock; stirred in minced garlic, minced lemon zest, lemon juice, and the pepper; and cooked briskly to reduce the liquid by half.
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Then all there was left to do was return the shrimp to the pan, give them another sprinkle of salt, heat them through, swirl in a little softened butter to smooth out the sauce, and serve.
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It was an almost startling dish. The sauce certainly made a contrast with the sweetness of the shrimp. Tellicherry peppercorns, said to be the richest and sweetest variety, also have a lot of fire, and it was all on display here. I’d say it was even intensified by the lemon juice and zest. The garlic, normally a perceptible presence in any dish, was pretty faint in this one.

The overall effect was weird at first, but as we ate along, it grew on me. Not, I’m sorry to say, on Tom, for whom the dish simply never came together. Despite being a major shrimp lover, I doubt I’ll make this recipe again – but I can imagine enjoying the dish if it were served to me some time in the future.

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Every now and then I come across something in the back of a pantry shelf that I’d completely forgotten about. Current case in point: most of a package of imported Italian dried chickpeas. Since they clearly had seniority among my dried beans and pulses, I felt I should make a special effort to use them.

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A timely email newsletter I received from the heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo featured a recipe for a winter salad of garbanzo beans (Rancho G uses the hispanic name) and carrots. So I started by making that.
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I soaked my chickpeas overnight in cold water. Next day I tossed them in a small mince of carrot, onion, and celery sauteed in olive oil, covered them generously with water, simmered until they were tender, drained and let them cool.

The remaining vegetables were raw: grated carrot, thinly sliced shallot, minced garlic, and chopped parsley. All were tossed together with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and ground cumin. I cut back on the recipe’s carrot quantity. It wanted 5 or 6 large ones to a cup of cooked chickpeas, which seemed like much too much.

It made a pretty dish, but it’s definitely one for lovers of the allium family: the amount of shallot and garlic were almost shocking at first taste. But the interplay of that sharpness with the sweetness of the carrot, the savoriness of the chickpeas, and the spiciness of the cumin grew on me. I wouldn’t want it often, but it was an interesting discovery.

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Next I tried a new-to-me chickpea soup. Soupe aux pois chiche is a Languedoc recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, a book I usually find very reliable. This dish was not a success.
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Several aspects of the instructions seemed peculiar. To start with, there was an odd initial treatment of the chickpeas. After an overnight soak, there was a one-hour simmer, uncovered, starting with fresh water; then another uncovered simmer, in yet more fresh water, for another hour or more, until the chickpeas were tender. Wouldn’t all that plain water leach out some of the peas’ flavor?

Meanwhile I softened a sliced onion and a big sliced leek in olive oil, added a cut-up tomato, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I was supposed to drain the chickpeas; return the water to the pot and bring it to a boil; add the sauteed vegetables and half the chickpeas; and cook until they could be crushed easily. The rest of the chickpeas were to be kept for another recipe. What was the point of that?! I just used half the amount of chickpeas to begin with.

I pureed the soup, reheated it and served it with croutons, as directed. It was totally insipid. The chickpeas could have been excelsior, the other vegetables were undetectable, salt was desperately needed, and when it went in, salt was all you could taste. I expect to occasionally come upon recipes I don’t like, even from cooks I respect, but this one was truly dismal.

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After that disappointment, I turned to a tried and true recipe for the rest of my chickpeas: pasta e ceci, from Tom’s and my second cookbook, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. The dish this simple recipe produces is the sort of thick soup or wet pasta on which generations of Italian peasants gratefully survived winter. Pure southern Italian soul food.
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After the chickpeas are initially reconstituted (the recipe uses the two-minute boil plus two-hour hot-water soak method rather than the overnight cold-water soak; either is fine), they’re drained, returned to the pot, and stewed with canned Italian plum tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and fresh water, absorbing flavor as they go. Needing only an occasional stir, the chickpeas simmer along gently until tender. Since that can be anywhere from two or four hours, depending on their freshness, it’s good to do this in advance.

The pot can sit on the back of the stove until dinner time approaches. Then you bring it to a boil, stir in short pasta, such as shells or ditalini, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the pasta is done. Add an aromatic mince of garlic, basil, and parsley, some olive oil, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and serve. Ambrosia!

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In December, the first sign of approaching Christmas at our house, well before the wreath goes up on the front door, is the steady buildup of holiday cookie tins.
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I start my cookie baking early, making two indispensables (Toll House and peanut butter), a selection of other favorites, and usually at least one new or uncommon variety. This year I added kourambiedes, reginas, and – for the uncommon one – Ischler törtchen. These delectable tartlets look like miniature Linzer tortes. I used to make them many years ago, from a recipe in The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire volume of the Time Life Foods of the World series. But they’d slipped out of my repertoire. Time to reinstate them!
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Back in the day, I remember thinking it was a fairly complex recipe to make, but now that I’m an old hand at cookie baking, it seems quite easy. Here’s how it goes:

Cream butter and sugar; add ground almonds, flour, and cinnamon; mix until a dough forms.
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Roll the chilled dough thin and cut rounds, adding a small central hole to half of them. (Not having a tiny cookie cutter for the central hole, I used the small end of a pastry bag tip.)
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Bake in a moderate oven until lightly browned.
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Spread each solid round with jam (traditionally raspberry, but I had some black fig jam from Sicily that I wanted to try) and top it with one of the pierced rounds.
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Line them up so confectioner’s sugar can be shaked generously over them.
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Delectable they certainly were. The black fig jam was fine, though I have to say the classic raspberry filling is indeed the ideal flavor match for the almonds. These tartlets don’t keep as well as my regular Christmas cookie varieties, so we’ll have to eat them fairly quickly. Not a hardship!

Of course, neither do we want to ignore those other Christmas cookies, all so very good in their own ways. Santa always seems to like them too.
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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good bite!

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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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A Dismal Lima Bean Soup

I’ve always disliked lima beans. I never eat them by choice. But I recently got tired of looking at the jar of dried limas sitting in my pantry – leftovers from making a recipe that used some in a modest supporting role a few years ago – and resolved to do something with them.

(From the above title you’ve no doubt gathered that this story is not going to have a happy ending. Since I’ve done many posts on recipes that came out extremely well for me, I feel it’s only fair to admit to some that haven’t.)

We were having chilly fall weather just then, which made a soup sound like a good idea. It would have to be not too elaborate, so if the limas let me down I wouldn’t have wasted all the other ingredients. But also not too bare-boned, lest there be too few supporting flavors for the beans to blend with.

In my ancient, rebound copy of Joy of Cooking I found a recipe simply called Dried Bean Soup, which offered a choice of navy, kidney, lima, or marrow beans. It looked as if it would do, so I soaked a cup of the limas overnight. The next morning they’d tripled in volume and looked pretty good, which was encouraging. They were to start cooking in boiling water with a bay leaf, whole cloves, peppercorns, and a meat ingredient: either ham, a ham bone, or salt pork. I had a chunk of salt pork in the freezer.

 

 

As the cooking began, it was not so encouraging. The required eight cups of water looked like an awful lot for the amount of beans, and the salt pork quickly released a lot of scummy fats. Well, plenty of time for it to improve, I hoped.

 

 

While it simmered along, I chopped the remaining ingredients: generous quantities of carrot, onion, and especially celery.

 

 

After two hours my beans had softened enough that, as the recipe directed, I added the chopped vegetables for a final 30 minutes. At least they made the soup look less like sludgy dishwater.

 

 

At this point the recipe suggested optional additions: garlic, saffron, sorrel, mashed potatoes. Oh, come on, Irma – have the courage of your basic preparation! Is it going to be OK without these things or isn’t it? I added only salt.

When the carrots were tender, I had to remove the meat and puree everything through a food mill. I pause to mention that my salt pork was so fatty there was hardly any meat to work with, and it was very stringy. But back to the pureeing. A blender or food processor would have done it faster, but there was so much liquid there that I thought milling might give it more texture.

 

 

The recipe then said to thin the soup, if necessary, with water or milk. Not a problem here: The soup was so thin I had to boil it down some. Didn’t help much. The bowl looked something that’d be served at Oliver Twist’s workhouse.

 

 

And so it was: like the worst kind of meager, insipid, institutional food. The only detectable flavors were clove, celery, and pork fat. Well, at least it didn’t taste like lima beans! I hate to waste food, but I tossed the rest of it.

I wonder now just where I went so wrong. If the limas hadn’t been so old … if I’d had a good piece of ham … if I’d used less water … if I’d tried one of the optional additions … would I have had a decent soup? I don’t know, but I’m not interested in finding out.

I threw away the rest of my dried limas.

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