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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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With only four days in Naples on our Italian trip earlier this month, there was no way Beloved Spouse and I could eat as many of the region’s foods and culinary specialties as we’d have liked. So we focused on – and feasted on – the many excellent kinds of fresh fish and shellfish available there. The beautiful Bay of Naples may not be the pristine pool it once was, but the local seafood remains spectacular in variety and flavor. Here are the dishes we enjoyed.

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Crudo

The word crudo means raw. Appetizer plates of raw fish are very popular in Italy. This one consisted of tender, paper-thin slices of baby octopus and salmon, lightly dressed with olive oil, lemon, and salt, and served on a bed of wild arugula. The interplay of the succulent octopus, the silky salmon, and the mildly bitter arugula was superb.
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Impepata di cozze

Years ago we knew cozze impepata as Neapolitan street food. Sidewalk vendors tended huge drums of boiling salt water heavily flavored with black pepper. They’d suspend a big bunch of mussels over the drum in a perforated dipper, pour water over them until they opened, and dump them onto a paper plate to be eaten with the hands. In this day’s restaurant dish, the mussels were steamed in their own broth, with garlic and oil as well as pepper. Each way, the glory of the simple preparation depends on very fresh, sweet, wild-harvested shellfish. And lots of pepper.

 

Spaghetti alle vongole veraci

This version of spaghetti with clam sauce, from the harborside restaurant La Bersagliera, may be my absolute, all-time, life-long favorite dish of pasta. I order it every time I’m there. Those tiny two-tube clams, the vongole veraci, have more luscious flavor and more intense sweetness here than in any other place and any part of Italy that I’ve ever had them. There’s not much else to the dish – olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt, and a touch of hot pepper – but either the clams from this locality or the way this kitchen handles them produces something purely magical.

 

Scialatelli con frutta di mare

Here are those marvelous mussels and clams again, in another kind of presentation. Scialatelli are fresh egg pasta, cut into a shape like thickish spaghetti but with a softer texture and milder flavor.  The lightly cooked pomodorini – cherry tomatoes – added a bright touch of sweet vegetable acidity to the rich shellfish flavors.

 

Mezze paccheri con coccio

It’s a Naples tradition to serve large tubes of paccheri pasta in a sauce made with chunks of the fish locally called coccio. It’s a kind of gurnard: a big-headed, bottom-feeding fish with large side fins like wings, a relative of our Atlantic sea robins. In America, sea robins are usually considered trash fish, but that whole family can be quite delicious, as Neapolitans know.  Another piscine relative is France’s rascasse, considered indispensable to bouillabaisse.

 

Frittura di paranza

The heap of small fishes on this plate included anchovies, tiny mullets and whiting, and possibly a sardine or two. Each was thinly coated in a tasty batter and fried to a perfect crunchiness. Lemon juice and salt brought out the best in them. Absolutely fresh fish and a really good hand at the fryer are what make this dish: It’s not “fishy” at all.

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Grigliata di calamari e gamberi

The big grilled squid mantle you see here was very tender, meat-sweet, and quite rich, its flavor heightened by exposure to the flame. The two shrimp were also excellent; I’d have been glad of a few more of them. The little mixed salad alongside made a nice contrast of texture and flavors.

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Spigoletta al forno in sale

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A spigola is a European sea bass, which can be a very large fish. Our smaller spigoletta probably weighed about two pounds when whole. Baked to perfection in a salt crust, it was a splendid fish: moist, rich, sweet, tender. (I know: I keep using the same words to describe these dishes. That’s because they were all like that – utterly delicious examples of their kind.)
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Looking at these dishes all together, it’s obvious that there’s nothing exotic or complicated in their preparation or presentation. Given the right ingredients, they’d all be easy to turn out from an American home kitchen. But oh, those ingredients! It’s nearly impossible to get fish and shellfish so fresh, so fine, and so flavorful here. The opportunity to indulge in them would, all by itself, have made my trip to Naples worthwhile.

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Vacation in Italy: Naples

I’m not doing any cooking this week. When this post is published, Beloved Spouse and I will be in Naples, being cooked for – deliciously, we hope – by some of our favorite eating establishments in that city. Here are several we’re eager to revisit. When we’re home, I hope to have some mouth-watering food photos to share.

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Capasso is a fine little pizzeria at the San Gennaro city gate. Handy for a lunch after a visit to the archeological museum.

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Ciro a Santa Brigida is a classic, elegant Neapolitan restaurant in the city center, just off the Via Toledo.  No cucina creativa or moderno here.

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Small and tucked away in a quiet neighborhood, Masaniello hadn’t been found by the tourist trade last time we were there. We hope it has stayed that way.

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Bersagliera, right down on the harbor, serves marvelous fresh fish and shellfish.

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Umberto is a full restaurant making traditional Neapolitan dishes, including excellent pizzas. It’s large, bustling, casual, and cheerful.

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Any time we need just a little refreshment, Gambrinus is our go-to cafe and bar for espressos, pastries, ice cream, aperitivi, or digestivi.

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P.S.  There’ll be no post next week, because we’ll still be in Italy: in Rome, by then. I’ve already written posts about many of our favorite Roman restaurants, so no point in repeating myself again. If you’re interested, look here, here, here, and here.  If I discover anything new and wonderful, I’ll report it when we return.

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When you’ve got a good recipe, it can be tempting to try to turn it into another good recipe, just by varying the ingredients. Some of those times, you may wish you’d left well enough alone. Other times you may get a dish that keeps the best of the original and embellishes it with something new. I managed to do that recently.

For an upcoming dinner, I was thinking of a large piece of moist-cooked meat. La Tavola Italiana, my first cookbook, has a very pleasant recipe for braciolone – a rolled stuffed flank steak braised in a small brown sauce – that I hadn’t revisited in years. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of braciolone recipes, owing to the many possible variations on both meat and filling. My filling was a modest one: just small amounts of prosciutto, parsley, grated pecorino, raisins, and pignoli, with bread crumbs and raw egg to bind.

This time, I envisioned my dish as a pork roll braised in tomato sauce. I had a nice 1½ pound piece of butterflied pork shoulder to use for it, which isn’t large as braciolone cuts usually are, but I’d be feeding only three people that evening, and it would be enough. I pounded the meat as thin as it would go.
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Pulling things out of the refrigerator for the stuffing, I was suddenly gobsmacked. I had no raisins or pignoli! How was that possible? I always have raisins and pignoli.

But no, I’d used them up and neglected to replace them. Their sweetness and crunch are important to the dish, and it was too late to dash out to a store. What to do? Well, desperate times require desperate measures: I smeared the surface of the pork with a thin layer of Indian mango chutney.

In case there might be need to mitigate that “uncanonical” flavor, I added some minced mushrooms and onion, softened in olive oil – which I had been considering using anyway – to smaller quantities of the remaining stuffing ingredients. Then I got ready to roll.
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I have to say I’m terrible at rolling and tying meat. If I clumsily try to wind a single piece of string around the cylinder, it never stays closed, so I have to strangle it with individual ties. Nor can I ever manage to fold in the ends of the roll so the stuffing can’t leak out during the cooking. Here I had to sew the ends closed with a darning needle and heavy thread. My braciolone wound up looking like the victim of a bad auto crash.
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Well, it wasn’t pretty, but neither was it the worst-looking roll I’d ever achieved. I tenderly carried it to a casserole and browned it in olive oil. Predictably, some of the stuffing immediately started to escape.
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Once the meat was browned I removed it to a plate, deglazed the pan with white wine, added eight peeled and chopped plum tomatoes and let them soften a bit, then returned the meat.
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My braciole cooked covered, being turned and basted occasionally, until it was perfectly tender – about an hour and a quarter. Long before then it had been perfuming the kitchen with gorgeous aromas. The sauce was pleasantly nubbly from the escaping bits of stuffing that had merged with the tomatoes and meat juices. The meat was pretty messy to slice for serving . . .
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. . . but it was excellent. All the flavors harmonized beautifully. There was a just-detectable hint of the sweet chutney spices, which complemented the natural sweetness of the pork. Really, pork and tomatoes love each other: The pork enriched the sauce and intensified the flavor of the now-melted tomatoes, and the tomatoes drew out even more succulence from that tender, juicy cut of pork. That’s why I always make at least a little more of this dish than we need for dinner: It’s even better the next day.

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The NY Times food section has got my dander up again. Headlines on an October 4th article promise a “method for keeping eggplant Parmesan crisp and delicious,” thus “solving the puzzle of eggplant Parmesan.” Now, there’s a solution looking for a problem! Crispness is a totally wrong characteristic for this dish.

Author Julia Moskin found a problem, though. She tells us that, up to now, she had never made an eggplant Parmesan that she didn’t regret. Many recipes, mostly American, that she’d tried made it come out tough, slimy, mushy, or sludgy. However, she concedes that good Italian versions of eggplant Parmesan exist – so why didn’t she make them rather than abandon an entire range of great traditional recipes for the sins of some bad ones?!

It’s because she wants her eggplant to be crisp, like a crusty breaded veal cutlet. So she set about to solve the puzzle of “in the real world, how to put crunchy eggplant, juicy tomato sauce and melted cheese together on one plate.”
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Well, in the real or any other world, I have no objection to a dish of breaded and fried eggplant with marinara sauce and mozzarella alongside. But for heaven’s sake, don’t call it eggplant Parmesan!

As for making the real thing, there are perfectly easy ways to prevent problems like mushiness or sludge. Don’t coat the eggplant slices with both a thick batter and breadcrumbs, don’t over-fry them, don’t drown them in sauce, and don’t bake the dish for too long a time. But also, don’t expect the eggplant to retain any crispness: That’s like asking for a crisp, crunchy ratatouille.

Having vented this, my latest culinary annoyance with the Times (others are here and here), I decided to soothe my spirits by making a genuine parmigiana di melanzane. I’ve already written here about one favorite version; this time I chose one that’s a little different, from my book The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen.

In many ways the two recipes sound as if they’d be very similar. Mostly the same components: eggplant, tomato sauce, onion, basil, grated parmigiano, mozzarella. Mostly the same procedures: making a simple sauce of plum tomatoes, salting or soaking thinly sliced eggplant, lightly frying it in olive oil, layering it in a baking dish with the other ingredients, and baking it.

But the two versions produce dishes with quite different effects, starting with the way the tomato sauce is made. My earlier one, more typically, softens a little onion in olive oil, stirs in pureed tomatoes and basil, and sautés until the sauce thickens. This one uses no oil – just softens halved tomatoes in a pot with onion and basil (no water), puts them through a food mill, and simmers until thick. Then the sauce is mixed with beaten raw egg.

Also, the two recipes use different proportions of the ingredients. For the same quantity of eggplant, this one (on the right) uses only half as much sauce (not counting the egg), and half as much of each cheese. That produces a dryer dish, as these two photos of the layering processes show.
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Baking time is different, too. The earlier version bakes at 350° for only 20 minutes, uncovered. The newer one goes into a 350° oven, covered, for 30 minutes, then is uncovered and baked 10 more minutes at 400°.
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Eggplant parmigiana always needs to cool somewhat before being eaten, to let the flavors blend. This one sat for a full half hour, and in fact it tasted even better as the portions cooled further on our plates. As you can see, on the right, below, it’s still much “eggplantier” than the earlier version, but the vegetable is beautifully permeated with all the other flavors.
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The portion on the right is also considerably dryer and more concentrated than the other one. The cheeses aren’t as prominent, serving more as an accent and slight binder here. The egg itself is unnoticeable, having merely done its job of smoothing and thickening everything else.

Both these versions of eggplant parmigiana are totally delicious. Neither one needs anything to make it great again; they’re great just as they are.

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We’re having a great summer for peaches. While a few months ago, newspapers were predicting a peachless year because of devastating winter crop losses in Georgia and South Carolina, that’s not the case here in the northeast. Peaches from southern New Jersey are plump, plentiful, fragrant, and sweet. Here’s a recent batch at my favorite greenmarket peach purveyor, Kernan Farms.
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I can’t pass by the stand without picking up a few. And since some of these beauties weigh three quarters of a pound, I find myself with a lot of rapidly ripening fruit that needs to be done something with.
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This is far from a problem from Beloved Spouse’s point of view: He happily consumes the peach pie, peach cake, peach cobbler, peach bread pudding, baked peaches, and peach jam that I make for him.

Browsing my cookbooks for another “peach something” to add to my tool kit, I came upon a recipe called Rustic Fruit Focaccia in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Now, focaccia is usually a savory bread (such as I wrote about here) but, as Michele explains, in Tuscany in autumn they make this flat bread with a topping of ripe wine grapes. She also says it’s good with other fruits too, such as peaches. Well, just the thing!

The dough for this focaccia isn’t kneaded at all: You simply stir together flour, sugar, salt, yeast, olive oil, and water until it becomes a rough ball. I suppose that’s what makes it “rustic.”

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The dough rises once in the bowl, then is spread out thinly over a shallow rectangular baking pan and rises again. While it was doing that, I was peeling and slicing peaches.
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The illustration in the book shows a focaccia topped with nectarines and blueberries. That looked good, but I had some raspberries in the refrigerator, so I dotted them on the dough along with the peaches, sprinkled a little sugar over it all, and baked it in a moderate oven for about half an hour.
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The edges of my focaccia crisped and browned just as they ought, but my fruit was so juicy that the central bread part of the crust didn’t. Still, it was fully baked and had risen about as much as expected. So I took it out of the oven, let it partially cool on a rack, and cut pieces for a week-night dinner dessert.
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This is definitely not a very sweet confection. Michele says she likes it mostly for breakfast or afternoon tea. We were happy enough with it in the evening, especially with a veil of powdered sugar. It made a nice, light, crunchy fruit dessert. But I agree that its true destiny is as a breakfast or midday treat, which is how we promptly devoured the whole rest of the focaccia. By midwinter, we’ll be longing for fresh fruit flavors like this.

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Regular readers of this blog know what a fan I am of Andrea Camilleri’s series of mysteries featuring Sicilian detective inspector Salvo Montalbano – as much for his devotion to food as for his skill in solving crimes. In every volume our hero lustily consumes traditional Sicilian dishes made for him by his faithful housekeeper Adelina, his favorite restaurateur Enzo, and anyone else he can find to feed him. Except his girlfriend Livia, who is a terrible cook.

The writeups of those dishes are so mouth-watering that I can’t resist making them myself. I’ve already written about them here six times, mostly based on recipes in a cookbook called I segreti della tavola di Montalbano. But that book doesn’t have everything mentioned in the novels, so I’ve had to do a little detective work of my own and go farther afield to find recipes.

The newest Montalbano adventure is called According to Protocol, and it exists not in a printed book but only in the Italian television series available here on DVD. (Naturally I have the whole series, just as I have copies of all the novels.) In this episode, Montalbano is told about Da Filippo, a country restaurant said to make a particularly good version of the octopus dish Polpo alla Luciana. He drives off to find it one afternoon.
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After verifying that the eponymous Filippo makes his octopus dish with Gaeta olives and Pantelleria capers, Montalbano sits down at a table. Just then, two black-hooded gunmen burst in, one of them clearly about to kill our hero. The other one inexplicably knocks out the shooter, fires his gun twice into the walls, and drags his partner out. Filippo responds by going into hysterics, but Montalbano’s principal concern is for his lunch.
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Alas, the video doesn’t show the dish actually being served. I determined to make it anyway, and began looking at recipes. There were none for polpo alla Luciana in my Sicilian cookbooks but several in my Neapolitan ones. I asked a New York-based Sicilian restaurateur about the dish, and he reminded me that in much of the 19th century, Naples was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with much comestible, as well as cultural, interchange. He said they of course made that dish in Sicily.

So I proceeded. In six cookbooks I found essentially two versions of the dish: one with the octopus simply boiled, cooled, and dressed like a seafood salad, the other braised in oil, tomato, and other seasonings and served hot. None of the variations included the quintessentially Sicilian olive and caper combination so important to Montalbano, but it would be easy enough to add them. I decided to mostly follow the recipe in Anna Gosetti della Salda’s Le Ricette Regionali Italiane and take a few hints from Ada Boni’s Il Talismano della Felicità, both highly respected Italian culinary classics.


Both recipes were for the braised version of the dish. In my detective persona I deduced that it was more likely to be the one Montalbano had, because if Filippo’s was the seafood-salad type the octopus wasn’t likely to be burning.

That decided, off I went to the fish market for octopus.
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These two, each weighing three quarters of a pound, had already been tenderized by the store. That was a huge convenience, saving me from having to smack them hard for several minutes with a meat pounder, or fling them repeatedly into the (clean) kitchen sink, to soften the rubbery flesh.

Preparing the other components of the dish was quite easy.
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I put the octopi into a heavy pot into which they’d fit snugly. I salted, peppered, and topped them with ½ cup of olive oil, 3 chopped plum tomatoes, a handful of chopped fresh parsley, a whole garlic clove, a small dried hot red pepper, and – for Montalbano’s sake –16 Gaeta olives and 2 tablespoons of drained tiny capers.
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To prevent any of the cooking juices from escaping, I had to lay a piece of parchment over the pot and tie it down with string, before putting on the pot’s own lid.
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The pot then went onto my stove’s lowest burner at its lowest setting and stayed there undisturbed – cooking “insensibilmente” – for two hours.

Ada Boni sternly forbids taking the lid off the pot until the very moment of serving. When you finally do, she says, you’ll see “a kind of big, reddish chrysanthemum, utterly tender, floating in an exquisite broth that the munificent beast has generously provided.” (My translation.)
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When I lifted off the parchment, a lush, savory aroma wafted up. My submarine “chrysanthemums” had shrunk considerably in the course of creating their broth. They were indeed beautifully tender, with a soft, yielding texture a little like that of scallops. They had the characteristic octopus sweetness – rich but delicate, sort of halfway between crabmeat and sole or flounder.
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The broth wasn’t at all a tomato sauce: the chopped tomato remained as toothsome little nuggets, along with the olives and capers. The olive oil had blended with all the other flavors to create an unmistakably Mediterranean essence. This was a very, very good dish, a worthy companion to a fine white wine. No wonder Montalbano loved it!

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