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Archive for the ‘American’ Category

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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When it comes to pasta, I’m a traditionalist. I don’t approve of restaurant chefs who need to vaunt their “creativity” with dishes whose ingredients have never before encountered each other on a plate. There’s a reason some pasta combinations are classics: they work! But even a cranky person like me can occasionally appreciate something new.

This time it came about because Tom noticed that a farm stand at our Greenmarket was featuring boxes of very fresh, small king oyster mushrooms.

 

 

He couldn’t resist them. We’d had ordinary oyster mushrooms before, but not this different variety, which have been available locally only in much larger, stemmier sizes. I looked them up in Elizabeth Schneider’s magisterial Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini to see if they needed any special handling. The answer was yes: moist cooking to tenderize the very dense flesh.

Then I needed a recipe to make them with, so I did an Internet search for recipes using oyster mushrooms. The description of this one attracted me: “Oyster mushrooms are poached in butter and cream and tossed with pasta, Parmesan cheese and green onions.” Obviously, that’s not a classic Italian pasta preparation, but there was a reason I decided to try it: I happened to have a lot of scallions in the refrigerator.

 

 

My faithful knife man cut the mushrooms into small pieces, which I was to sauté for six minutes in butter, adding parsley, salt, and pepper for the last minute. Apparently if they had been the common oyster mushroom, as in the recipe, they’d have been tender by that point, but these sturdier ones weren’t yet.

 

 

When I poured on the recipe’s amount of heavy cream, I could see that it wasn’t going to be enough liquid for poaching, so I took it on myself to add a little broth.

 

 

Next I was to cook the mixture “at a gentle boil” for about five minutes, until the sauce thickened slightly. I was concerned that doing so might dry up the sauce and toughen the mushrooms, so instead I covered the pan and simmered it until the mushrooms were tender. The sauce didn’t thicken much, but I didn’t consider that a problem.

I set the mushroom pan aside while I cooked the pasta – linguine, as recommended – and chopped up two of my many scallions. I finished the dish right in the pan of sauce, tossing in the drained pasta, the scallions, and a few tablespoons of grated parmigiano.

 

 

I really hadn’t been expecting much, especially with the scallions going in raw at the end like that, but to our great pleasure everything came together extremely well. The linguine absorbed a good amount of the sauce, leaving the dish just moist enough. The mushrooms were delicious – the caps tasting noticeably different from and even better than the stems. The scallions also made a real contribution to the harmony of flavors, aromas, and textures.

I still wouldn’t call this an Italian dish, but it certainly was a good one. Guess I have to admit that the “classics” don’t have an exclusive lock on excellent pasta combinations.

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Sauteed Pears with Ice Cream

It’s a great pleasure to find a new, good, simple, dessert recipe. For a dinner visit by a good friend, I was planning a New Orleans-style meal. There’d be a crabmeat appetizer, followed by a chicken and sausage gumbo. We’d need something light and refreshing for dessert.

Lightness not being a characteristic of New Orleans cuisine, I had to search extensively in my kitchen library, but I finally hit a winner in Richard and Rima Collin’s New Orleans Cookbook. The recipe’s headnote description attracted me immediately: “Fresh ripe pears sauteed in butter, seasoned with spices and kirsch, and topped with vanilla ice cream. As the ice cream melts over the warm fruit, a delicious sauce forms.”

With pears just coming into season, it seemed an ideal way to end the dinner. There was even a long-lasting bottle of kirsch sitting at the back of my pantry.

But pears can be tricky: They mostly come on the market rock-hard, can take a long time to ripen, and are very susceptible to bruising. Delicate Bartletts in particular have a nasty habit of spoiling from the interior. You cut open an apparently just-ripe pear and find it all brown and mushy around the core. For that reason I usually buy Boscs, which seem a little more reliable. But this recipe wanted unpeeled pears, and Boscs have fairly chewy, dingy brown skins. I’d try the dish with Bartletts.

Gingerly picking up and examining all the pears in the market bin, I chose these three as the most promising.

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I carried them home tenderly and left them out in the fruit bowl for a few days until they just began to yield to pressure. Then I moved them to the refrigerator for another two days, hoping they wouldn’t be over-ripe when I was ready to use them.

Happily, they weren’t. On the morning of the dinner party I halved, cored, and cut the pears into ¼-inch slices.
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I sautéed them in melted butter over low heat, turning the slices with excruciating care so as not to break them up.
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As soon as they’d all gotten well acquainted with the butter, I gradually sprinkled a mixture of sugar, cinnamon, ground cloves, and freshly grated nutmeg on the pears. More delicate turning and mixing. In less than 10 minutes, the pears were almost tender, which was my signal to pour on 3 tablespoons of kirsch, stir once more, and turn off the heat. There was no cooking off of the alcohol: very New Orleans!
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Cooled and covered, the panful of pears sat on a broad windowsill until dessert time. I then gently heated them back to bubbling, distributed the (very soft but still largely intact) slices and their liquid into three dishes, and topped each with a scoop of the best artisanal vanilla ice cream I could get my hands on.
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The ice cream immediately did its promised job of melting over the warm fruit and blending with the fragrant juices into a sauce for the pears. It all made a lovely light dessert, tasting exactly as you can imagine the combination of those sweet fruit and spice flavors would. Very welcome and refreshing after a spicy gumbo, and a good conclusion to a good dinner among good friends.

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A Coffee Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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