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Archive for the ‘American’ Category

You couldn’t tell from reading my blog that Tom does a lot of cooking in our house. He does, though. Not big on following recipes, he’s a versatile utility cook. Soups, stews, steaks, chops, pasta, frittata, vegetables – let him look in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, and he’ll put together something good for a meal.

One of his big talents is hash. Tom sees hash as the perfect way to use leftovers to make another, different meal. No two of his versions are ever exactly the same, and he never measures ingredients, but all are a simple pleasure to eat. This week I watched with my camera while he made his latest concoction. Here’s what would be going into it:
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In the front, a few formerly fried potatoes, the last chunk of a good smoked ham, raw celery, and remnants of a roasted duck. In the back, two eggs, an apple, red onion, carrot, and raw potatoes. (The apple isn’t chopped yet, to keep it from turning brown.) As you see, he doesn’t feel hash needs to be overly heavy on meat.

The condiments, lined up in readiness, were Mexican hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper.

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And so, to work. He started by parboiling the raw potatoes and carrots for 10 minutes.

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Drained, they went into a frying pan with the onion and celery, and gently sauteed in olive oil for about 10 to 15 minutes. No browning yet wanted.

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Next, he stirred in the ham, duck, and already fried potatoes, cooking the mixture slightly more briskly for another 10 minutes. Generous salt and pepper, plus splashes of Cholula sauce and Worcestershire went in at this point, and everything was vigorously stirred together.

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Finally came the apple and another vigorous stirring, followed by gentle cooking together for 10 to 20 minutes, until the mixture began browning on the bottom and forming a slight crust. The hash was ready.
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Then it was my turn to step in, to poach eggs to top the hash. You need very fresh eggs for poaching, to keep the whites neatly surrounding the yolks. On this day the eggs I had were pretty old, so as an experiment I put a pair of English muffin rings into the pan of simmering water and eased an egg into each one.
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I can’t say it worked completely well. Even though most of the whites stayed contained within the rings, some escaped and floated around wispily in the water. But it didn’t seem to hurt the eggs any.

So here is a plate of the day’s hash, crowned with its egg. The hash itself was richly flavorful, as always. The apple, which he’d never used in a hash before as far as I remember, gave  a nice little touch of sweetness to the succulence of the meats and vegetables. And the liquid egg yolk made its usual perfect sauce.
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Hail to the chef!

 

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A cobbler can be a great fruit pastry for an ease-loving home baker. You do have to make and roll out dough but, unlike making a pie, you don’t have to fit a round of dough into the baking dish, fit another round over the fruit filling, trim and seal the two together, and shape an attractive rim.

The cobbler section of Lee Bailey’s book Country Desserts opens with a two-page spread showing a rustic blackberry cobbler, made with dough merely partially folded over the berry filling, leaving large (artistically placed?) gaps.
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In the recipe headnote, the author declares this to be his favorite kind of cobbler. I’ve made and enjoyed his peach cobbler, so the prospect of an even tastier one was very tempting. And berries are easier to work with than other fruits: no peeling or slicing needed.

There were no fresh blackberries in my Greenmarket yet, so I bought a commercial pack. Happily, it contained three cups of berries, which was exactly right for a half recipe’s worth.

I usually make pastry in my heavy-duty mixer, but this recipe requires a food processor, because it calls for frozen butter and frozen vegetable shortening. That’s certainly a way to keep the dough cool, but I’ve never had trouble using just chilled fats and very cold water.  This should have been my first clue that Bailey’s favorite cobbler might require a bit more effort and complication than other, less special, ones.
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The processor noisily and laboriously turned the frozen fats, flour, and salt into a rough crumble. Then I had to trickle in more ice water than called for, in order to make it gather into a mass. Good thing the fat was frozen: in the process, the machine had thrown a lot of heat.
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The dough, shaped by hand into a ball, had to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. I used the time to clean the dough residue from the processor parts, which was harder than cleaning my stainless steel mixer bowl. Another clue? Hmpf!

When it was time to roll out the dough, I faced a mathematical question. If a whole recipe needs a circle of dough 15 inches in diameter, how big should the circle be for half a recipe? It was obvious that a half-sized circle – 7½ inches – would be too small, so I resorted to my trusty A = π r² formula and rolled the dough to 11 inches.
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Probably unnecessary precision, as I realized later. I could just have eyeballed the job. I think I was already a little spooked. Anyway, I draped the dough over a small pie dish and heaped the berries in the middle, adding sugar and dots of butter.
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Here I diverged from the recipe. For three cups of berries, it would have wanted six tablespoons of sugar – much too much, I thought. I gave it three tablespoons. Then, just before closing over the dough, I chickened out to the extent of one more tablespoon. In the upshot, that was unnecessary: Those berries were plenty sweet already.

Back to following directions, I folded the overhanging dough around the filling (it wasn’t supposed to cover completely), and sprinkled a little more sugar over the crust.
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The cobbler baked at 425° for 45 minutes, to come out lightly browned and bubbling – and with a large puddle of breakthrough juices. Hmpf again!
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Inartistically messy as it looked, my blackberry cobbler was delicious. Perhaps a bit too sweet for us, but richly berryish and with a firm, tasty crust. Well worth the amount of unexpected effort it took. (Though next time I might try making the crust with unfrozen fats.)
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The half of it that we couldn’t finish for dessert that evening made a sinfully good breakfast the next morning. That none of it lasted longer than that is a testimony to how much we enjoyed it.

 

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The herbs I planted on my building’s roof garden, which I mentioned in my last post, are doing well.

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Picking them has been perilous for a few weeks, because of a militant mockingbird that attacked anyone who stepped out onto the roof, which he considered his territory. At last, his babies have fledged and left the nest he was guarding up there, and I can tend my tiny herb garden in peace.

The herb that most needs frequent cutting back is the dill, which has been flowering so fast, it’d soon be setting seed and dying off. To help redirect its attention to new shoots, I snipped some of its feathery-leaved flowering stems to use in two recipes I made for the first time this week.
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Dakhini Saag: Spinach with Dill

This dish from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India is a specialty of Hyderabad, a city in southern India. Jaffrey says it’s “a simple but very flavorful spinach dish.” Given the number of ingredients listed in the recipe, I wasn’t sure I’d regard it as simple, but by the same token I could see it was certainly going to have a lot of flavors. It looked like fun.

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To begin, the spinach had to be wilted in boiling water, drained, cooled, and squeezed. Then I called my bespoke knife man into action, and he gallantly rose to the occasion. Clockwise from lower right, here are the spinach, chopped; sliced fresh spring onion; diced heirloom tomato; sliced Spanish onion; chopped dill; chopped garlic; salt, cumin seeds, turmeric, and red chili powder.
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Actually, once those components were prepared, the dish really was quite simple to make. First, I sauteed the cumin seeds, Spanish onion, and garlic for a few minutes over medium heat.
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Next, I lowered the heat, added the spinach, dill, salt, turmeric, and chili powder, and cooked all that for two minutes.
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Last, I stirred in the diced tomato and spring onion.
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Another two minutes’ cooking made the dish ready to eat.

And very good it was.The very first taste was purely moist, tender spinach, but each forkful opened in the mouth to reveal the flavors of the seasonings – mainly dill, but also subtle accents of spring onion, cumin, and chili. (The tiny cubes of tomato, being of necessity hothouse, served mostly for appearance.) A nice middle choice between plain spinach and a composed dish.
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Jennifer’s Dill Bread

Long ago, my friend Jennifer, with whom I’ve shared many recipes back and forth, gave me her hand-written one for dill bread. It had her small variations on a recipe that a family friend had given her even longer ago. I saved it in my big recipe binder, but this folksy American yeast bread made with cottage cheese never quite caught my interest enough to try. Now, with my dill needing to be used, it seemed to be time.

The recipe directions were simple in the extreme – they started with “Soften yeast in water. Combine all except flour.” The “all” was cottage cheese, sugar, salt, baking soda, minced onion, softened butter, an egg, and dill weed.
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Next was to add “enough flour to form a stiff dough.” Here, I had to go astray. The ingredient list said 2¼ to 2½ cups. In my heavy-duty mixer with the dough hook, 2½ cups of flour produced only a thick, heavy batter. I added more flour. And more. And more. (I think there was too much whey in my cottage cheese.) This is apparently supposed to be a no-knead dough, but mine was thoroughly kneaded by the time I achieved a dough thick enough to hold together in a ball.
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It rose nicely in a gently warmed, turned-off oven, though with all that extra flour, it took longer than the expected one hour to double in bulk.
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I punched the dough down, shaped it into a ball, and was then supposed to put it in an 8-inch round casserole to rise again. I don’t have a dish that size, so I substituted a buttered 8-inch pie tin and prayed that the free-standing loaf would support itself as it rose in the turned-off oven. It did.
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A bit over an hour of baking at a more moderate temperature than I usually use for breads (350°) produced a plump brown loaf. The final touch was to brush the crust with butter and sprinkle it with sea salt.

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Sliced, it revealed a soft, light crumb with a wheaty sweetness and a gentle fragrance of dill. (Might have been dillier if I hadn’t had to add so much extra flour.) It was good as a dinner bread, good for sandwiches, and good for morning toast. Although it will never replace my all-time favorite White Bread Plus from Joy of Cooking, this folksy recipe made a versatile and tasty loaf.
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A brief heat wave earlier this month made me think about a picnic. Normally, I can take picnic fixings up onto my building’s roof garden, but this spring a very aggressive mockingbird who has a nest somewhere up there has taken to dive-bombing anyone he regards as encroaching on his territory. His beak is sharp and his aim is good.

Oh, well. A picnic in the dining room can be pleasant too, and there we have air conditioning, comfortable chairs, and a good CD player. And no avian attackers.

One of Tom’s and my favorite dishes for hot-weather fare is a big salade niçoise. But it’s still too early in the season for the fully ripe field-grown tomatoes and freshly dug potatoes that the dish wants, so I looked for other cold-platter combinations.

It so happened that I had many new choices just then. My friend Betty, who was downsizing her book collection, had dropped off a pile of cookbooks for me to look at, in case I might want any of them. A 1986 volume called A Taste of Italy, by Antonio Carluccio, a British restaurateur, had a number of interesting looking recipes, including three new-to-me antipasto items that I made for my picnic platter.

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What you see here are raw-beef meatballs, eggs stuffed with tuna, eggplant rolls, an heirloom tomato (hothouse, but best I could find), and a wedge of sheep-milk ricotta. The green wisps around the edge of the plate are bits of cilantro that I managed to snip from a plant in my rooftop herb collection before the militant mockingbird chased me away.

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Uova Ripiene di Tonno

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Deviled eggs are a time-honored summer treat. I usually mash their yolks with whatever condiments I feel like pulling out of the refrigerator that day – mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, soy, Worcestershire, Cholula, pimentòn, capers, cornichons? This recipe, more restrained, calls for a lot of canned tuna and only a little mayonnaise, parsley, capers, and black pepper. That way, the balls of filling are the main component of the dish, the whites merely a casing. Especially if made with the rich Italian belly tuna called ventresca, it’s a tasty little dish. (The parsley was also from my roof, snuck out under the baleful eye of that bird.)

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Insalata di Carne Cruda

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While steak tartare is always eaten immediately after its preparation, the raw beef here is minced together with parsley and garlic; dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and black pepper; and held in the refrigerator for a whole day before being eaten. That made the lemon juice “cook” my beef like seviche, turning its bright red color to grayish pink and somehow flattening all its rich meatiness. The headnote calls this a popular Piedmontese recipe, but the versions of carne cruda that I know are made with veal, not beef; and lemon juice is added only at the last minute. For me, this was a terrible way to treat excellent sirloin.

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Involtini di Melanzane

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These eggplant rolls tasted better than they looked. My eggplant (store-bought; too early for local ones) had excessively well-developed seeds. Sliced thin, the flesh around its seeds had very little substance. Browned in olive oil, drained, and spread with a chopping of parsley, pine nuts, capers, and garlic, the slices were too fragile to roll properly. Folded over and baked for 20 minutes, they darkened too much at the ends and partially burst open at the middle. Annoying! But this treatment has promise. I’ll try it again, with a fresher, less mature eggplant that I’ll cut in somewhat thicker slices.

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All in all, though, that platterful made a nice first-of-the-year indoor picnic. So far, I’d call the score for this cookbook a hit, a miss, and a maybe. I’ve marked a dozen of its other recipes for trying someday, so we’ll see how that score changes over time. Good thing it doesn’t have a recipe for spit-roasted mockingbird!
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Mushrooms and onions are workhorses of my cooking repertoire: essential support players in many dishes, on many dinner plates, but rarely the stars. When I found a recipe in the American Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series that gives leading roles to both vegetables, I was happy to try it.

Here are all the ingredients. The mushrooms are cremini, the sliced onions are Spanish, and the condiments are salt, pepper, lemon juice, parsley, butter, and sour cream.

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The cooking was quite easy, and I did most of it well in advance, though the recipe doesn’t say you can. First I sautéed the onions in the butter until they were lightly colored. That took seven minutes.
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Next, I added the mushrooms, mixed them around a bit to get acquainted with the butter and onions, covered the pan tightly, and cooked for another seven minutes.

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At that point I turned off the heat and moved the pan, partially covered, to the back of the stove, where it sat peacefully for a couple of hours.

When it was time to eat, I pulled the pan up to a front burner and stirred in salt, pepper, lemon juice, and sour cream. I brought everything to a simmer, stirring until the sauce was heated through and taking care not to let it boil, lest the sour cream curdle.
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The final step was to sprinkle chopped parsley over the mushrooms in the serving bowl.

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At the dinner table, the mushrooms, onions, and sauce shared the plates with a pan-roasted rib steak and braised bok choy. It all would have been more attractive if the sauce had coated its vegetables evenly!


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I’m sorry to say the dish was disappointing. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it mediocre, but the good-in-themselves components didn’t mesh in a way to enhance each other. The mushrooms were just mushrooms, the onions just onions. The sauce was all right, as long as you like sour cream, but it was just as pleasant on the steak and bok choy as on its own vegetables.

 

Another time I may well make the dish entirely without the sauce. I’d slice the mushrooms rather than leave them whole, double the quantity of onions, and maybe deglaze the pan with a bit of white wine just before serving. I bet it would be very good, done just that simply.

 

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A whole (or even half) ham is not something you choose lightly when cooking for a two-person household. But it’s spring, tulips and daffodils are blooming, and life in our city is opening up a little at last, allowing us to gather vaccinated friends around our dinner table: Just the occasion for a festive ham.
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I can’t even remember the last time I cooked a ham, but I knew I didn’t want to smother this one with sweet glazes or sticky tropical fruits. Rather, something more restrained, amenable to whatever excellent wine Tom would bring out for us from his collection. In Julia Child’s The Way to Cook I found the perfect recipe: Braised Whole Ham in Wine and Aromatic Vegetables. It’s quite a big deal, occupying a two-page spread in the book, and though it calls for a 14-pound bone-in whole ham, it turns out to be perfectly adaptable to a half ham.
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In fact, the half ham I ordered from our butcher weighed in at 12 pounds. They’re growing pigs mighty big these days! I had him slice off a thick ham steak, which left me with a hefty 10-pound hunk of meat.
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I set it on a rack in my biggest roasting pan and strewed the pan with sliced carrot, onion, and celery, black peppercorns, allspice berries, sage leaves, and bay leaves. The recipe gave several options for the wine, which was to be poured in next: dry white, French vermouth, or Port. By the rarest of coincidences, I happened to have 3/4 of a bottle of a pleasant dry white Port in the refrigerator. In it went.
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After adding about a pint of good broth, I covered the roasting pan and braised the ham for three hours at 325°, basting with the pan juices every half hour.

When the ham came out, the knife work began. Tom manned the cutting board and painstakingly trimmed off all the bits of rind, fat, and hard, tough, ragged pieces.
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Julia says it’s normal for the ham to look a mess after this step. I’m proud to say my ham was absolutely normal.
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All the above work was going on in the afternoon. Per the recipe, it should have been done much closer to dinner time, to be ready for its final metamorphosis in the oven. But, with all the rest of the meal to manage, a lot of it needing similar late-stage work, I took a risk that the ham would tolerate a lengthy pause at room temperature. (Which it did, thank goodness.)

Meanwhile, I strained the juices from the roasting pan, to be warmed and served in a gravy boat, and turned several slices of my homemade white bread into fresh crumbs. Later, but still before the guests arrived, I transferred the ham to a shallow roasting pan, brushed some of the juices all over the ham, and pressed the bread crumbs onto the entire surface. I must say, I was very dubious that the crumbs would adhere but, by golly, they did. That made the ham look much more civilized.
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As time for the main course finally approached, I drizzled some melted butter over the breadcrumbs and put the pan into a 500° oven, uncovered, for just 15 minutes – enough time to brown the crumbs and warm the ham. (Julia assured me the ham could even be served tepid, if desired.) Then it was ready to slice.
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I’d like to have shown you the ham and its accompaniments on a full dinner plate, but I got so absorbed by the conversation with the guests that I forgot to take any further photos. It was a wonderful ham: not at all heavily smoky, but rich with the essences of the braising ingredients. The light gravy was equally rich, with just a touch of fruitiness from the port.

To complete our pleasure, the ham and the wine Tom had chosen for it – a white 2017 St. Joseph from the Rhône – could have been born for each other. He is a great fan of Rhône whites, and here the earthiness and roundness of the St. Joseph, and the distinctively intense fruit of its southern French grapes, meshed perfectly with the meat sweetness and light smokiness of that ham. As Italian cooks would say, un buon abbinamento.

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It seems I’ll never learn to leave well enough alone. I essentially ruined a nice slab of beef short ribs this week, because I wanted to oven-roast them.
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Short ribs are wonderful for braising. Long, moist cooking makes them meltingly tender, the meat just falling off the bone. Why can’t I be content with that?

Well, I can truly say “the devil made me do it,” because the recipe that led me into temptation is called Deviled Short Ribs. I found it while browsing in the Beef and Veal volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series, where it’s credited to the American Cooking: Eastern Heartland volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. Both sets of books have given me many excellent recipes.

I had to start early in the afternoon to make a marinade for the ribs: mixing minced onions and garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt and black pepper in a large bowl. That seemed a promising start.
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I cut my ribs into three pieces and turned them around in the marinade to coat thoroughly.
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I covered the bowl and left it on the kitchen counter for two hours, turning the ribs every 20 minutes to give all the surfaces good contact with the marinade. Then I transferred the ribs to a rack in a shallow roasting pan.
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The ribs were to roast at 400° oven for 20 minutes, then at 350° for another 1¼ hours, “or until the meat shows no resistance when pierced.” That was where my trouble began. Checking initially at one hour – just in case – I found the meat still very firm. After the next 15 minutes, it had softened only a bit. Another 15 minutes brought an improvement, but there was still resistance. The ribs were looking quite dark and somewhat shrunken. I was afraid they were drying out. A final, nervous 10 minutes, and out they came.
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The ribs were far from meltingly tender. Many outside bits were hard and dry. The thicker parts of the meat were chewable and even tasty, though the marinade hadn’t made any noticeable contribution to the flavor. And the abundant collagen layer that in short ribs holds the flesh to the bone – and that melts away in braises – remained as a tough skin that was hard to cut away from the meat.
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When we’d eaten what we could, there was much left to be discarded, alas. But, to look on the bright side, it all went into Tom’s soup scrap bag in the freezer, to ultimately join with other odds and ends of vegetables, meats, and bones in a big kettle of water and be cooked into excellent all-purpose broth.
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Maybe the devil likes his short ribs this way, but I won’t be inviting him to dinner any time soon. So I’ll just draw the curtain over this whole incident, listen to my better angel, and go back to braising for all the short ribs in my future.

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Long-married couples who hope to remain that way have to learn to tolerate each other’s idiosyncrasies, not least those involving food. I loved the new dinner dish I tried a few evenings ago. Tom ate a tiny portion, patiently waited while I finished mine, and made most of his meal on the subsequent cheese course.

When I first suggested trying this Carolina chicken and shrimp pilau from James Villas’ book Country Cooking, Tom was actively interested in the recipe. But it didn’t come out as he’d expected: too heavy on the chicken for him. “Arroz con pollo,” he said, resignedly. I didn’t agree, but even if I had, I also love a good arroz con pollo. (He doesn’t.)

With that little domestic contretemps as background, I’ll tell you about making this unusual poultry-and-seafood dish. The recipe gives quantities to serve eight, and I was cutting it down for just two of us. So my protein ingredients were:

  • Two chicken thighs, simmered in water with celery and peppercorns, then skinned, boned, and the meat shredded
  • Two slices of bacon, crisped in a frying pan and crumbled
  • A dozen medium shrimp, shelled and deveined

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After a recent unhappy encounter with mediocre chicken, this time I made sure to use free-range, vegetable-fed chicken thighs. The bones and skin went back into their boiling pot, to cook with the celery and peppercorns long enough to make a light broth. The bacon’s fat I scraped into a heavy casserole for the initial cooking of the rice.

I chopped half an onion and a tiny garlic clove; briefly sauteed them in the bacon fat; added half a cup of long-grain rice and tossed it to coat with the fat. Next in went ¾ cup of the chicken broth, a little chopped tomato, ½ teaspoon of lemon juice, ½ teaspoon of Worcestershire, several gratings of nutmeg, and a speck of cayenne. (Though Worcestershire sauce is in the ingredient list, it never appears in the recipe instructions. I figured this would be the place for it. No salt or pepper requested yet, either. I gave it some anyway.)
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Stirred, covered, and brought to a boil, the casserole went into a 350° oven for 20 minutes. Though I worried that might be too long for my small quantity, it was OK – just. When I took it out, the rice had absorbed all the liquid and was clearly beginning to think about sticking on the bottom. Quickly I stirred in a little more of the chicken broth and added the chicken, shrimp, and bacon, along with more salt and pepper, though the recipe still didn’t ask for any.
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The casserole went back into the oven for 15 minutes. Again, I was concerned about the time: Would 15 minutes toughen the shrimp? No, fortunately, it didn’t. (And here at last the recipe said to correct for salt and pepper, which I no longer needed to do.)
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As I said above, I loved this dish. The chicken was tender and tasty, the shrimp plump and juicy, the rice gently infused with all the aromatic ingredients. The shrimp and chicken hadn’t actually mingled their flavors, but they neighbored surprisingly well on the plate with each other and with the toothsome rice. I was sorry that Tom didn’t think so too, but for me, the pilau was an excellent new discovery.

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P.S.  That yellow hockey puck you see on the plate above is a sweet potato biscuit. I baked a small batch because Villas calls for them as a good accompaniment to the pilau. They didn’t work for me. Made only with flour, baking powder, Crisco, and a boiled sweet potato, the biscuits hardly tasted of anything. Maybe you had to grow up in the South to appreciate these.

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My household is very fond of oxtails. A dinner staple in cold weather, they lend themselves to interesting preparations from many different countries. I’ve done posts about Italian, French, Spanish, and British oxtail recipes, only one of which wasn’t thoroughly rewarding. And every year, before winter ends, I look for new oxtail recipes to try.

This time around, I created a sort of hybrid French-American version: a combination of braising and broiling, working with a recipe published in a French cookbook of 1876 and some changes suggested by a present-day illustrated procedure – both of which I found in the Beef and Veal volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series.
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I started by blanching my oxtail pieces in plain water for 10 minutes. This was probably unnecessary with clean, modern oxtails, but it’s a way to shorten the main cooking time a bit. While they cooked, I chopped a cup each of carrots and onions and spread them in the bottom of a heavy casserole. (The French recipe wanted chopped turnips also, but we’re not fond of turnips.)
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In went the drained oxtails, and over them I poured ⅔ cup of white wine and 2 cups of Tom’s rich homemade broth. (The little white things you see in the picture below are the onions, which mostly floated. The carrots didn’t.)
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I brought the pot to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, covered it, and put it in a 300° oven for 3 hours, until the meat was done enough to be loose on the complex bones of the vertebrae.
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The oxtail pieces then had to cool completely before the final cooking. The French recipe would have had them cool in the braising liquid, but that would have taken a long time, so I drained them immediately and set them on a platter.
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While they cooled, I strained the braising liquid, pressing down on the vegetables and discarding them, and reduced the liquid by about half.

Then it was time for the final broiling of the meat. I salted and peppered the oxtail pieces, brushed each one with a thin coating of Dijon mustard, rolled them in fine dry breadcrumbs, and put them into a broiler pan.
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Then I drizzled a little melted butter over each piece; broiled them 5 minutes on the first side at 6 inches away from the heat; turned them over and broiled 3 minutes on the second side, until they were crisp and very tender.
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The French recipe wanted the oxtails served with a chestnut puree. I thought that would be stultifyingly heavy, so I compromised by making a modest amount of soft polenta. The modern procedure recommended braised red cabbage, glazed carrots, or a vegetable purée. Again, I thought those would be too heavy, so I made just a green salad with vinaigrette dressing.

The oxtails were excellent. The salad was a good, refreshing choice, because even the polenta struck us as a little too heavy. Mashed potatoes might have been better, and they’d have loved the delicious gravy. But whatever you put with them, oxtails are great cold-weather food. The long, slow cooking they need is just perfect for those icy days when you’re happy to have the oven warmth in the kitchen and appetizing aromas all over the house.

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Mardi Gras snuck up on me this year. It was only one day in advance that I realized it was here. We don’t normally celebrate it any special way, but in this Covid-confined year anything different is welcome. So I draped myself in strings of Carnival beads and changed my dinner plan for the evening.

A shrimp adaptation of a crawfish étouffée recipe in The New Orleans Cookbook by Richard and Rima Collin seemed like just the thing. It was less complicated than other versions of the dish that I’ve seen, and all I’d have to buy for it was one green Bell pepper and some scallions. It turned out to be a very good choice.
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I did the preliminary cooking in the late afternoon. Here are all the prepped ingredients for a two-person portion.
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To the right of the shrimp are butter and flour. To the left, chopped onion, celery, pepper, and garlic. In the back, salt, lemon juice, cayenne, parsley, black pepper, and thinly sliced scallion greens.

The first step, in classic New Orleans style, was to make a light brown roux with the butter and flour.
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The chopped vegetables then went into the pot, to cook over low heat, stirring often, until softened. The recipe said that would take about 20 minutes, but my smaller quantities were ready in 10. Things were beginning to smell good already.
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Next, I stirred in the shrimp, all the condiments, and half a cup of water, which was absorbed immediately.
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The recipe wanted this cooked for 12 minutes. Now, I don’t know anything about crawfish, but I do know that my shrimp would’ve turned into vulcanized rubber if cooked that long. I gave them 5 minutes, still stirring, then turned off the heat, covered the pot, and left it on the back of the stove.

At dinner time, I reheated the shrimp mixture and very slowly added about a cup of hot water, stirring constantly to prevent the developing sauce from lumping. It smoothed out nicely and was ready to eat.
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As soon as the rice to accompany my étouffée was also done, I put everything on a serving platter and added a frivolous decoration of Carnival beads. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
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This was a delightful dish. The shrimp were plump and tender, cooked just right. The fragrant sauce was spicy and sweet, creamy and zingy, vegetal and seafoody, in a way that simply sang of Mardi Gras and New Orleans. In a grungy February in pandemic-restricted New York, these flavors were like a breath of life.

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