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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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We could have taken our Fourth of July picnic up to a table on our building’s roof garden, but it was still ghastly hot and humid that evening, and since the elevators don’t go up to the roof, we’d have had to shlep food, drink, and all their accouterments up a sweltering stairwell. So our foursome picnicked in the dining room in air-conditioned comfort.

Tom created a dandy little hors d’oeuvre for the occasion – a sort of micro-mini ballpark hot dog. He fried two slices of sandwich bread in butter, spread them with yellow mustard, cut them in one-inch squares, and laid a chunk of frankfurter on each. Half of them received a round of homemade bread-and-butter pickle under the frank, and the other half were topped with a piece of cornichon. Both were very tasty, but we all agreed the bread-and-butter-pickle version had the edge.

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The main event opened rather elegantly with Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison. A few years ago I wrote a post about making this specialty of the famous New Orleans restaurant. It’s a luscious dish and always a favorite.
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After that came the more traditional picnic-y foods.

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My potato salad, made with the season’s first new potatoes, thinly sliced, a little red onion, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and homemade mayonnaise.
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Tom’s macaroni salad, with bits of celery, bell pepper, red onion, and tomato; dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and the same mayonnaise.
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A broiled flank steak with Tom’s minimal barbecue sauce: his own seasoned ketchup, Worcestershire, and chipotle Cholula. It makes a light coating, penetrating the meat just enough to liven up its own flavor.
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There was also corn on the cob – white corn, first of the season, wonderfully fresh and sweet – chunked heirloom tomatoes, and a crusty baguette; all set out family style and attacked with enthusiasm and old-fashioned boardinghouse reach.
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To finish the meal we had a nectarine cake, which I make from a Joy of Cooking recipe called Plum Cake Cockayne. It’s a regular summer dessert of mine, sweet, easy, and good with any stone fruit. It was consumed with alacrity, even though everyone protested how full they already were. That’s the magic of fruit desserts.
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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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