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When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

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Lemon Chiffon Pie

My recipe this week comes with a big backstory. This pie came about because I’d finally persuaded Beloved Spouse that our apartment absolutely had to be painted, before flakes of the cracked 10-year-old paint job began falling off the walls. He hated the disruptions it would cause (we’d be living there the whole time), but he capitulated. Shortly before we descended into the abyss, I laid in a supply of calming medications.

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Each evening when the painters had gone, we’d creep out of whichever room they’d left for us to inhabit that day, pick our way through heaps of clumsy equipment and masses of shrouded furniture, and take our daily dose.
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Life went on like this for three. whole. weeks. But eventually the work came to an end, and we found ourselves – livers intact but psyches slightly dented – in a bright, cheerful apartment with smooth walls of a lovely lemon chiffon color. I decided to celebrate our survival by making a lemon chiffon pie.
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I’d never made a lemon chiffon pie, so I turned to the recipe in Bernard Clayton’s Complete Book of Pastry. It gave lots of advice on handling gelatin fillings and offered a choice of three kinds of pastry crust. The easiest one was said to be crumb crust – which I’d also never made before – so I bought a box of graham crackers and set to work. Having done so, I can’t say I agree about the easiness.

Turning those grahams into “1½ cups (6 ounces) fine crumbs” was a piece of work, especially because my weighed-out 6 ounces of crackers came nowhere near 1½ cups of crumbs. What to do – go with the weight or go with the volume? I chose volume and kept feeding crackers into the processor until I achieved it.
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I mixed the crumbs with ½ cup of sugar and ½ cup of melted butter, poured them into a pie dish, and shaped the crust. That wasn’t so easy either. Grumbling to myself that I’d have had a normal short pastry crust all done by now, I pushed and pressed those slithery crumbs around and around until they finally looked like a bottom pie crust.

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Into the refrigerator it went while I made the lemon custard. I softened an envelope of unflavored gelatin in ¼ cup of water. I grated a teaspoonful of lemon rind and squeezed two big lemons to obtain ½ cup of juice. I separated three eggs. I mixed the yolks in ½ cup of sugar in the top of a double boiler and cooked until it thickened a bit.
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Then I had to stir in the gelatin, lemon juice, and rind, and put the mixture into the refrigerator “until slightly thickened.” There I made my big mistake. With all Clayton’s warnings about working with gelatin, he neglected at this point to say Don’t let it firm up too much. Duh! I left it too long.

As a result, when I’d whipped the egg whites and tried to fold them in, they wouldn’t. The semi-solid gelatin wanted nothing to do with the whites. I had to practically cut the gelatin part into little pieces, smush them against the sides of the bowl with a spoon to soften them, and even go right in with my (very clean) fingers and squeeze the lumps to break them up.
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When I gave up, the filling still wasn’t fully smooth but it was the best I could do. I put it into the crumb crust and chilled it again. The recipe also called for a topping of sweetened whipped cream, but from finger-licking samples of crust and filling that I’d taken, I knew the pie was going to be plenty sweet enough for us, so I skipped that. (The filling looks white below, but that’s a peculiarity of the light at the time. It was pale yellow.)
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When sliced, the pie still looked awfully messy – crumbly crust and bumpy filling – but you know what? It tasted just fine! On the tongue, the texture defects were unnoticeable. The filling was very sweet, very lemony, and exactly the color of our newly painted walls.
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This was not what I’d call a pie to be proud of, but as a family dessert to commemorate the end of our painterly tribulations, it was a worthwhile experiment. And it was one more episode in my ongoing culinary education.

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The culinary world must contain an infinite number of cheesecake recipes. The cheese component of any one version may consist of only cream cheese, only cottage cheese, only ricotta, or some combination of those, in widely differing proportions. Similarly variable are the indicated quantities of eggs, sugar, sour cream (if any), and flour vs. cornstarch.

While I’ve never had a cheesecake I didn’t like, I’m not a frequent baker of the things. For many years, if I felt like making a cheesecake, or Beloved Spouse asked for one, I’d go straight to the recipe on the back of the Argo cornstarch box. (Yes, Virginia, Argo once came in a modest cardboard box with a cheesecake recipe on the back. Now it’s in a bulky plastic bin, and the recipes on it are for generic gravy and play clay for kids. O tempora, o mores!)
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Fortunately, I copied out the Argo cheesecake recipe for myself long ago. It calls for a pound each of cottage cheese, cream cheese, and sour cream; plus sugar, cornstarch, eggs, melted butter, lemon juice, and vanilla. I generally make a half recipe’s worth and skip its graham cracker crust entirely.

My refrigerator never normally contains sour cream, cream cheese, and cottage cheese or ricotta at the same time, though at times it has at least some of one or two of them – usually left over from other uses. So I got into the habit of varying the half recipe’s proportions of those three according to what I had on hand, and buying the remaining item or two. For example, some of the variations I’ve made notes on are:

  • 1 pound ricotta, 1 cup sour cream, 2 ounces cream cheese
  • ½ pound ricotta, ½ cup sour cream, 5 ounces cream cheese

I’d adjust the other dry and wet ingredients to achieve a reasonable looking batter and proceed to bake the combination according to the recipe. Every one of my mongrel combinations turned into an actual cheesecake, with a decent texture and a pleasant flavor.

Thus encouraged, this latest baking day, I went way out on a limb. Clockwise from the sour cream in the picture below (the only thing I had to buy) are 6 ounces of cream cheese, 4½ ounces of sheep’s milk ricotta salata, and 2½ ounces of regular ricotta from buffalo milk.
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Now, ricotta salata is a fine addition to many good dishes, but it’s not used in desserts. This salted and pressed variety of ricotta is dense, crumbly, and lightly salty. I chose to use it in part from an urge to clear my refrigerator of small leftovers and in part out of curiosity, to see what I’d get by blending this firm, dry, sharpish cheese with my remnant of soft, sweet, creamy buffalo ricotta, which was just about swimming in its own whey.

I whomped the ricottas together in my heavy-duty mixer, then worked in the cream cheese, 2 beaten eggs, and ⅔ cup of sugar. When that was well mixed I added 2½ tablespoons of cornstarch, ½ teaspoon of vanilla, and 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice. That gave me just a quart of not-very-thick batter. I’d have liked to bake it in a deep dish, but the only suitable sizes I had were shallow pie dishes. One of those would have to do.
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The dish went into a 325° oven for one hour, then sat in the turned-off oven for two more hours. The cheesecake firmed and puffed up nicely.
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It was a really quirky tasting cheesecake – not unpleasant, but only slightly dessert-sweet. It seemed to be approaching a savory baked custard, like a crustless quiche. I must admit the texture was a bit grainy. I really should have pushed the ricotta salata through a fine sieve before beating it into the fresh ricotta. Not sieving is a shortcut I often take with my cheesecakes. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter; this time it did.
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The cheesecake was as usual quite rich. Its savoriness made it go well with a glass of white wine. There was enough of it to last us for several days, and its texture seemed to smooth out somewhat with time. Still, it’s not an experiment I’m likely to repeat.

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Summer hasn’t quite given up yet, and the principal summer vegetables are still going strong in my greenmarket. To take advantage of this late-season bounty, I turned to James Villas’ Country Cooking, a book that has two recipes for cooked vegetable dishes designed to be served at room temperature, which I’d been meaning to try for a long time.

One is for zucchini and bell peppers, the other for eggplant and onions. These are among our favorite vegetables, but except in very rare circumstances (e.g., zucchini a scapece, eggplant caviar) I only ever serve them hot. Since the book is organized around menus for entertaining, it’s easy to see how useful it is to have substantial vegetable dishes that can be entirely prepared in advance. Even without a party in prospect, I decided to make them both, in reduced quantities.
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Zucchini and Red Peppers Vinaigrette

This is a very lightly cooked dish, finished with a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients are zucchini cut in sticks, peppers cut in strips, a little chopped onion, and a bit of garlic – staple ingredients of cooking all around the Mediterranean.
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They’re stir-cooked together in butter with salt, pepper, and thyme. The use of butter is a departure for me, as I – and most of the countries around the Med – typically use olive oil for these vegetables. I was curious to see what difference butter would make in the taste.
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As soon as the vegetables had barely softened I transferred them to a dish and, while they were still hot, tossed them with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and mustard. Then I covered the dish and refrigerated it for an hour before serving.
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At first taste, the zucchini and peppers seemed rather bland, as if they hadn’t been affected much by either the sautéeing or the dressing. They were quite crunchy, with possibly a faint butteriness detectable under the vinaigrette flavors. As dinner went on, I came to appreciate what a good foil the vegetables made for the braised squab they accompanied, and I wound up liking them very much. Leftovers were just as good the next day.
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Cold Eggplant and Onions

In contrast to the brief cooking time of the previous recipe, this one takes three hours – though there’s no active work in that time. The long cooking, according to Villas, is “what gives the dish its incredibly luscious texture.” It has just a few ingredients: the eggplant, lots of onion, much parsley, a little tomato, a tad of garlic.

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Once the eggplant is sliced, it’s to be salted and set in a colander for an hour to draw out some of the liquid. The recipe didn’t say to peel the eggplant, and mine had fairly tough skin. I wondered if that might cause a problem, but I left it on. (The recipe also didn’t say how to treat the tomatoes. Since there were only the two, I peeled and roughly chopped them.)

After rinsing and drying the eggplant slices, I spread half of them in an ovenproof dish and topped them with half the parsley, all the onion, and all the tomato. I sprinkled on minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and the rest of the parsley. The rest of the eggplant went on top, along with a modest coating of olive oil.
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Covered, the dish went into a 275° oven and baked undisturbed for two hours. At that point I was supposed to stir the mixture with a fork, cover it again, and return the pan to the oven for a third hour. I wasn’t sure how energetic a stirring was intended, and the top layer of eggplant looked so peaceful, I just nudged things around a little. Everything seemed well cooked already, but I gave it its last hour. Then it had to cool completely before being eaten.
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This was a very mild, mellow dish. “Incredibly luscious texture” isn’t quite the way I’d describe it, though it was pleasant enough. The eggplant (skin included) was ready to melt in the mouth. The dish had a nice onion sweetness, balanced by a slight acidity from the eggplant. A little extra salt helped bring up the flavors. As with the previous vegetable dish, this one proved to be an excellent foil for the dinner meat – in this case, grilled lamb chops.

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So, will I use these recipes for entertainment? I’m not sure. Years ago, when Beloved Spouse and I used to give large parties, they would have been fine. But we really don’t do that anymore. And in style, these dishes don’t fit easily into the kind of small-dinner-party menus we like to put together these days. I’m more likely to make them for ordinary home consumption.

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One of the stands at my greenmarket recently had some wild mushrooms of a kind I’d never seen before: wine caps. Big and fleshy, they looked a little like porcini, though with stems not so bulbous and caps with gills, not pores. Assured by the farmer that they tasted like porcini, too, Beloved Spouse and I couldn’t resist trying a few.

The first ones we bought we just sliced and sauteed in butter. They were very good, though milder in flavor and sweeter than porcini. We liked them enough to come back for more the following week.

 

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This time we wanted to try them in a more composed preparation: stuffed and broiled for an appetizer. I looked at several recipes, but they were all fairly elaborate, making the mushrooms themselves mainly cases for richly flavored fillings. We wanted something more delicate, so the wine caps’ own flavor would predominate.

Time to improvise. My faithful knife man chopped the mushroom stems, a small red onion, and a little fresh poblano pepper, while I grated some gruyère.
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We sauteed the chopped vegetables in olive oil until they were just softened . . .
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and mixed them in a bowl with most of the grated cheese. Since that light stuffing was already fully cooked, we needed to give the thick mushroom caps a head start on their own cooking. We brushed them with olive oil, broiled them for three minutes with the tops up, turned them and broiled another two minutes, tops down.

Then we took the pan out of the oven, filled the caps with the stuffing mixture, and sprinkled on more gruyère.
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A few more minutes under the broiler heated everything through, melted the veil of cheese, and lightly crisped the edges of the mushroom caps.
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They were lovely. The flavors had mingled pleasantly, leaving the wine caps themselves the main attraction. Another time – whether with these or another kind of mushroom – we might add a few breadcrumbs to that stuffing to give it a bit more body. We each ate a small cap and half of the large one, and we could easily have devoured twice as many.

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 A few coincidences set the stage for a very interesting dinner at home this week.

  • Beloved Spouse, having decided to write a post for his wine blog on a comparison between prosecco and champagne, brought home a representative bottle of each, first for a formal tasting, then to test with dinner foods.
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  • I had just read Fatal Pursuit, a detective novel by Martin Walker that has Perigord police chief/gastronome Bruno Courrèges making blinis of an unusual kind to serve with local caviar – a kind I wanted to try to make.
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  • We had a little jar of American transmontanus caviar in the refrigerator.

Everyone who reads the Bruno books knows that their lavish descriptions of the hero’s cooking are virtually narrative recipes. I’ve written about re-creating some of his dishes here. The blinis in this story are not the traditional Russian ones in several ways. Bruno doesn’t use any buckwheat flour; he adds chopped chives to his batter of flour, milk, egg yolk, and melted butter; and – because he doesn’t have time to raise the blinis with yeast – he beats the egg white into peaks and folds it in. I did the same.
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I dropped the batter by tablespoonsful into very hot butter in a frying pan. (Bruno remarks that this is one of the few places he doesn’t use duck fat!) They cooked quickly and neatly, making 20 fluffy 2-inch pancakes.
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After we’d had the formal tasting of the sparkling wines alone, we opened our caviar and sat down to find out how the champagne and prosecco would go with our dinner dishes. The blinis themselves were fine – light and delicate, an excellent vehicle for the caviar. I think the leftovers, which I froze, may be just as good with smoked salmon or sturgeon.
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We did the same tasting of the two wines along with the dinner’s main course, which was sauteed soft-shell crabs on toast and a summer vegetable mélange of okra, corn, and tomatoes (which I’ve also written about here).
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I’ll leave the detailed results of the wine-wine and wine-food comparisons for Tom’s blog post to report. What I’ll say is simply that Bruno’s blinis were a success, all the food was delicious, both the wines were delightful, and the entire evening sparkled like the wine.

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Every spring and fall Tom and I make short trips to Cape May, NJ, a hotspot for finding migratory birds. Perched where Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, Cape May also boasts excellent fish and shellfish. While there, we indulge liberally in that seafood, and often bring some home from the harborside fish market. One of its specialties is fresh, never-frozen shrimp from North Carolina or Florida. Costing half what shrimp does in Manhattan, and tasting twice as good, a few pounds of them are a regular treat for us. Even when frozen at home, as they have to be, they’re very fine shrimp.

A bit disturbingly, the first 10 ounces I took out from our latest batch to cook for dinner were an unattractive color when looked at closely.

Raw shrimp are normally white with pinkish shells. The brownish, yellowish tinge on these made them look as if they were beginning to rot. Even when shelled, the flesh was darkish and dingy.

But they smelled fresh and felt properly firm. To be on the safe side I decided to make them in a slightly spicy preparation, and just for aesthetics, one that wouldn’t call attention to that color.

My ever-obliging knife man sliced up a nice mess of vegetables for me – two cups of onions and two cups of mixed Bell and poblano peppers.

I softened the peppers and onions in olive oil; sprinkled on salt, pepper, and mild New Mexican chili powder; stirred in about ⅓ cup of pureed tomato; covered and cooked it all together for 10 minutes, until the veg were tender. The pan then sat at the back of the stove until called for.

 

As you can see, that mixture vaguely replicated the color tones of my ugly shrimp. So when I reheated it, added the shrimp, and stirred them about until they were just opaque, you really couldn’t tell whether their shade was natural or due to the tomato and chili powder.

Served on a bed of plain boiled rice, the dish was very good. It had a modest touch of warmth from the spicing, and the shrimp were sweet, fresh, and just as flavorful as ever. I’d used basmati rice, because that happened to be the only long-grain rice I had on hand. It and the shrimp didn’t have much to say to each other, but it strongly bonded with the peppers and onions. The shrimp also adored the vegetables, and vice versa. A very successful simple improvisation.

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