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For last week’s post on eating out in Eastern Washington, I featured an excellent dish I’d had called Wood Oven Clams. These were roasted Manila clams, with butter, herbs, and fresh lime juice. I’d never had clams done that way before and immediately knew I’d have to try making them myself. This week I did.

The Manila clams my fish market carries are darker in color and thicker shelled than the Washington ones were – I suppose because of the different habitats they were harvested from. But they have the double siphon that to my eye identifies true manila clams, and they’ve always been good. I bought about 1¼ pounds for 2 servings.

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None of my cookbooks had a recipe like the restaurant’s dish, but a little internet research produced one that I could use as a guideline. It was really a very simple procedure.

I put a shallow terracotta baking dish into the oven and preheated it to 500°. Carefully taking out the hot dish, I put the scrubbed clams into it, strewed over them 3 tablespoons of butter, several thin slices of fresh spring onion, 2 tablespoons of white wine, 1 tablespoon of olive oil, and a pinch of dried thyme.
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To return the dish to the oven, I switched the setting to broil, and repositioned the shelf closer to the heating element. Within 5 minutes, a few clams had begun to open, and in another few minutes all had done so. Out they came, to receive a generous sprinkling of chopped parsley.
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Then I just divided the clams and their unexpectedly ample cooking juices between two bowls and added a quartered lime to squeeze over it all. With some crusty bread to dunk in the juices, they were delicious. We were surprised again, as I’d been in the restaurant, by how well those clams took to the butter. Of course, steamer clams are often served with drawn butter, but I would never have thought of it with hard-shell clams. And the lime’s tart sweetness was a perfect final touch.
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I’ll be making this dish again!

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Tom and I are just back from a week’s birding trip to Eastern Washington. That’s the dry side of the state, protected by the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains. We’d hoped to encounter good Pacific Northwest regional foods there, as well as many bird species that aren’t found in our part of the country.

Overall, we had fine weather, beautiful scenery at several altitudes, a congenial group of fellow birders, and reasonably successful birding. (We missed a few target species, e.g., Golden Eagle, Varied Thrush, Ferruginous Owl.) The food, however, mostly disappointed. Too much of it was anonymous American, inferior Italian, or ubiquitous salmon. Even so, there were some interesting and memorable dishes.

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At one dinner, my appetizer was called Wood Oven Clams. I hadn’t known you could oven-roast clams, so this was a new pleasure for me. They were sweet, tender Manila clams, as moist as if they’d been steamed open but with a bit more depth of flavor from the roasting, and with a refreshing burst of seasoning with butter, herbs, and fresh lime juice.
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Tom’s main course that evening was Cioppino, made with shrimp, clams, mussels, calamari, and some sort of white fish. Obviously not a specialty of this high-altitude area so far from the sea – but it was very good: hearty and delicate at the same time, as fresh and enjoyable a fish stew as one could hope for.
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At another dinner we shared an appetizer of grilled venison bratwurst with hot bacon-cabbage slaw, roasted fingerling potatoes, grainy mustard, and fresh applesauce. The venison may well have come from local mule deer, which were commonly seen in our forest walks. This was a dish for hearty mountain appetites: It could easily have been a main course for one of us.
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From the bratwurst we went on to share an excellent cheese fondue made from a blend of Gruyere, Asiago, and Swiss, with white wine. The dipping ingredients were a heaping plate of grilled sausage, roasted potatoes and carrots, steamed broccolini, bread cubes, grapes, and apple slices. Again, this was meant as an appetizer for two, but it was plenty as a main course for us.
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Finally and quite unexpectedly, for lunch at a cheerful roadside Mexican joint, we enjoyed fish tacos and tacos al carbon, both as lively and good as any we’ve had in the Southwest or elsewhere. A pleasant, spicy change from the milder flavors we’d mostly been experiencing.

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We’re in the height of asparagus season at my Greenmarket, the bright, crisp spears tasting far better than the tired, long-traveled ones that stores carry year-round. It’s hard to imagine how you can ruin a dish of fresh local asparagus. Well, lucky me! – I found a recipe that does.

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I’d been serving my asparagus in simple ways – just boiled, sauteed, or roasted – and I thought it would be interesting to try a different recipe. The Vegetables volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series has several. My eye was caught by the title of one: Minute Asparagus. Was this the word that’s pronounced my-newt, meaning very tiny ones? No, as it turned out; it had to do with the cooking time. I was curious enough to try it. I’ll tell you right away, it is a totally inaccurate description.
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I had to start by peeling a pound of asparagus. I hate peeling asparagus. On the rare occasions when I do it, I’m in constant danger of peeling bits off my fingertips or fingernails. But I did it this time, and it took me many minutes.
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Then Beloved Spouse heroically stepped in to “cut the asparagus into very thin diagonal slices, not more than ¼ thick – thinner if possible.” Doing that with care not to produce a few thin diagonal slices of finger took him a very long time too.
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At last I was ready for the eponymous cooking time. I filled a big pot with boiling water, dropped in the basket of asparagus pieces, and when the water came back to a boil cooked them for just one minute.
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But don’t think that meant I was done. Meanwhile I’d melted butter in a saute pan, so now I turned the asparagus into it, and stirred in 1½ tablespoons of soy sauce, 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice, and several grindings of black pepper. This was to be cooked over medium heat “until the butter has browned and the asparagus is crisp and deliciously flavored.”
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Everything about that instruction was wrong. First, adding soy sauce to melted butter turns it brown immediately. Second, the additional cooking turned the asparagus soft (not to say soggy), not crisp. Third and most damning, in the end there was no asparagus flavor left at all – it tasted of nothing but soy sauce.
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Ruining that batch of lovely, plump asparagus was a big disappointment, but I can’t say it was a total surprise. Time-Life credits the recipe to James Beard’s American Cookery. I’ve never been a Beard fan and I don’t have any of his books. I’d hoped this dish would improve my opinion of him, since he’s such an important culinary icon. Alas, not so for me.

My failure here had one beneficial effect: It reminded me of a Chinese asparagus recipe in the Time-Life Foods of the World series, which I hadn’t made in years. You roll-cut asparagus spears to 1½” lengths; boil them for one minute; toss with sesame seed oil, soy sauce (proportionately much less than Beard’s), and sugar; and chill. I made it with my next batch of Greenmarket asparagus.

This dish really is “crisp and deliciously flavored,” as well as being much quicker and easier to make.

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Last week Tom and I made our annual spring birding pilgrimage to Cape May, New Jersey, a hotspot for migratory birds. We stay in an oceanfront motel apartment with a kitchen, so we can alternate dining out and dining in. Not to waste birding time with extensive food preparation, we bring along pre-cooked main dishes in a cooler chest. This year our friend Jennifer was with us, so we were cooking for three.
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The appetizers for our first dinner in the apartment were a specialty of Tom’s, elegantly known as “cheese thingies.” For these he lightly pan-cooks 7” frozen parathas, tops them with cheeses and other items as inspiration suggests, and runs them under the broiler until the cheese melts. We brought all the ingredients for these in the cooler chest.

On the left, a thingy with Isle of Mull, a Scottish cheddar, and Greek-style pickled peppers. In the center, one with Puigpedrós, a Catalonian cow cheese, and Italian corallina salame. On the right, Puigpedrós again with chopped onion and pickled jalapeño peppers. Very eclectic and international, eh?

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Our main course was a stew of chunks of skinless, boneless chicken thighs with potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, green beans, onions, garlic, a few dashes of Cholula hot sauce, white wine, and chicken stock, thickened with flour. I’d made and frozen it several days in advance. It was plain, homey, and tasty.

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The next night we went out for dinner to the Lobster House, a popular dockside restaurant. There we always start with Cape May Salts, an especially succulent local oyster. The three of us happily went through two dozen oysters and then went on to excellent fried soft-shell crabs and fried sea scallops. The menu always offers elaborate creamed seafood concoctions, but we prefer to keep things simple and enjoy the freshness of the prime fish and shellfish.

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At home again the following day, we sat to a mixed antipasto, the components of which also came along with us in the cooler chest: fresh ricotta, mortadella, sweet sopressata, grape tomatoes, a smoked shrimp and crab spread, Venetian-style calf’s liver pâté, and toast triangles.

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The main event was a pan of lasagna that I’d made in advance, baked, and frozen for transport. It was partly a Marcella Hazan-style northern Italian version, with Bolognese meat sauce and béchamel, but with Neapolitan additions of mozzarella and coins of sweet sausage – all between many layers of our thinnest homemade lasagna noodles. Reheating the lasagna in a very hot oven provided nice crunchy end pieces to contrast with the meltingly lush central section.

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.The final dinner of our trip was again at the Lobster House, and again we started with two dozen of our favorite Cape May Salts. We went on to the restaurant’s signature snapper soup (not pictured below), fried flounder and fried calamari. Everything was sparklingly fresh and perfectly cooked.


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Lest you think all we did in Cape May was eat, be assured the birding was fine, even though the weather was a bit dodgy. We got up very early each day and did quite a bit of walking, which was how we worked up appetites for all that food. We logged a total of 93 species of birds over 3½ days.

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The new recipe I made this week came about because Someone Who Shall Be Nameless came home from the store with the wrong kind of bananas. They’d been in a bin containing plastic bags labeled “product of Costa Rica,” and Someone assumed all the bags were the same. But as I put away the groceries, I saw the bananas’ bag said they were from Colombia.
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Not that there was anything wrong with them – but we’re fussy about bananas: we buy only Costa Rican or Mexican ones because we’ve found they have better flavor and texture than those from South America. Well, I didn’t want to waste this batch, so the solution was to use them in cooking.

I often make banana bread from a Joy of Cooking recipe, but it uses only one banana per loaf, which wouldn’t much diminish the current supply. I’ve also made a few banana desserts (and written about them here and here), but for those I relied on my favorite Costa Rican variety. So I went hunting in my cookbooks for something else. In Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts I found a recipe for banana nut muffins that uses three bananas. And the banana-walnut flavor combination seemed particularly inviting.

Now, I’ve never been totally confident about my muffin skills. Recipes always say Don’t overmix the batter: the gluten will develop too much, rendering the muffins tough, coarse-grained, and full of tunnels. Leave it lumpy! But when I mix muffin ingredients, by the time all the visible dry flour is folded in, the batter is already smooth. This hasn’t actually ruined any muffins that I’ve made, but I always wonder if they’d have been better if I’d made myself stop sooner.

Nevertheless, in the past I’d done pretty well with two other muffin recipes from Bailey’s book, so I put my doubts aside and tried this one. In a large bowl I stirred together eggs, milk, and melted butter. Then I beat in brown sugar and vanilla extract. In a smaller bowl I sifted flour, baking powder, and salt together, dumped that into the large bowl and stirred slightly. While there was still a lot of flour visible I scraped in three mashed bananas, chopped walnuts, and vanilla extract and combined it all minimally.
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The fruit and nuts obligingly created lumps for the batter to gather around, and before the mixture could smooth out – or my culinary compulsions could take over – I spooned it into greased muffin tins. The muffins baked at 400° for 25 minutes, sending good smells into the kitchen, and rising into golden brown, properly conical domes, looking for all the world like successful muffins. A wave of relief, a tentative sense of triumph.
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The muffins were tender and tasty, not overly sweet, with a gentle banana essence and savory little walnut crunches. The texture seemed just right: toothsome, with no graininess, no tunnels. Maybe I’m finally getting the knack!
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That left three Colombian bananas still sitting in my fruit bowl. Maybe I’ll give them a chance with one of the dessert recipes. If that works, Someone will be able to feel completely vindicated.

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A very big birthday – one ending in zero – befell Beloved Spouse this week. We considered declaring it to be fake news and paying it no attention, but in the end we decided to celebrate it. In our house (as should be common knowledge by now), celebration requires dining on excellent food and wine, so that’s what we did – with a menu chosen by Himself.

We made a bold start with caviar and champagne. In addition to the relatively inexpensive American “osetra” that we’ve bought online in the past, the birthday boy snuck in a tiny jar of Russian osetra, for comparison. Alas: It was noticeably better than the domestic one, making it a costly taste to try to avoid acquiring. The champagne was Krug, a gift from a very good friend. And very Krug it was, a big, vigorous, richly flavored companion to the caviar.
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This luscious start, Himself averred, already began to ease the sting of the birthday’s bigness.

For the main course, he had requested saucisson en croûte, a large sausage baked in a pastry crust. I’d never made one before, but with a little help from Julia Child, in Mastering, I set to work. Early in the day I simmered a one-pound cotechino sausage in water until fully cooked and made up a batch of pâte brisée. Later I rolled out an oblong of the pastry dough, brushed the center with mustard, and set the cooled and skinned sausage on it. I encased the sausage in the dough and rolled out another strip to lay over the top, decorated it modestly and brushed it with egg glaze.
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The stuffed pastry baked in a hot oven for 45 minutes.

For a vegetable, the birthday celebrant joined me in the kitchen and washed, parboiled, drained, and sauteed a bunch of fresh Swiss chard in butter with chopped onion. As a condiment we served mostarda di Cremona, fruits poached in mustard syrup, which we bring back from our trips to Italy. The combination was excellent. Though the pastry crust tried to fall apart at the slicing, it was very tasty, seeming to have imbibed some meaty essence from the juicy, spicy sausage.
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In keeping with the developing binational theme of the meal (American and Russian caviar, Italian sausage in French pastry, Italian fruits and Swiss chard) Tom selected two bottles from his wine closet to drink with the main course, one each from Italy and France, both vintage 2004: a Barolo riserva from Giacomo Borgogno and a Nuits-St.-Georges from Drouhin.
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He was curious to see which one would go better with the food. Here he is with the result.

The two wines behaved remarkably similarly with all the elements of the dinner, both feeling soft, even velvety, on the palate, and tasting of earth-and-mineral-inflected dark fruit. Neither wine was anywhere near its peak, but both showed well, enjoyably drinkable and fresh, while hinting of the greater complexity they’d be capable of in the future. The Barolo evidenced a bit more tannin, the Burgundy a bit more acid – but either wine would have served comfortably as the consort of the dishes. Another illustration of why so often Barolo and Burgundy are compared!

(In a rare fit of birthday moderation, we didn’t finish either wine; nor did we finish the champagne.)

To conclude this festive meal we indulged in a pair of purchased chocolate delicacies: a square of opera cake and a chocolate mousse tartlet.
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(We didn’t finish either of them, either.)

And so ended another decade of the culinary and enological adventures of Himself and his adoring spouse. We mustn’t wait too long to have Russian osetra again and another bottle of Krug. After all, who knows how many more decades we have in us?

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As a first course for my most recent dinner party – on what was predicted to be an extremely cold night – I wanted something warm and savory but not too heavy, to precede a cassoulet: good stick-to-the-ribs fare. I considered a large Alsace onion tart or individual cheese tarts; both very tasty but also things that I make fairly often for dinner guests. The two concepts coalesced in my brain, with a slight variation: Let’s do individual leek tarts!

Leeks are a great winter vegetable, and even though I’d never made or eaten leeks in a tart, I was confident they’d be good that way. None of my cookbooks had recipes for it, but a little online research produced many, all quite similar. As the main difference among them was the relative proportions of the ingredients, I decided this was a do-it-however-you-like deal. So I did.

One of my local grocery stores carries excellent big leeks, sold individually rather than prepacked in bunches. I bought three.
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When Beloved Spouse began cutting them up for me, the white and tender green parts of only two of them filled a four-cup measure, so I stopped him there. (No problem about the extra: leeks never go to waste in my kitchen.) I melted butter and olive oil in a sauté pan and cooked the leeks gently until they were just tender.
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At that point the online recipes variously said to add either heavy cream, light cream, or half-and-half, as well as grated gruyère. Instead I stirred in a cup of mascarpone. When it had fully melted and smoothed out, I added half a cup of gruyère, and the tart filling was ready.
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For my pastry shells I used a pâte brisée recipe from Simone Beck’s Simca’s Cuisine. I like it because the dough is made with a whole egg and white wine, which give it a little flavor boost. Three-ounce balls of dough are just the right amount for my 4½-inch fluted tart pans.
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After filling the shells with the leek mixture I distributed another half cup of gruyère over their tops and baked them at 375° for 30 minutes. They were just beginning to brown when I took them out of the oven.
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All this was done the day before the dinner party. Cooled and covered, the tarts sat overnight in a cold room. At dinner time the next day I put them under the broiler for ten minutes to complete the browning.

Alas, I can’t show you the final result. In the bustle of serving the meal I purely forgot to take a photo of the tarts. But they were a great success, and the guests loved them. The vegetal brightness of the leeks, the lush creaminess of the mascarpone, and the warm, buttery crunch of the pastry played off each other beautifully.

If those little tarts had a fault, it was more richness than was perhaps advisable for diners about to tackle a cassoulet – but we all finished them anyway!

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