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During the week in Venice that Tom and I are just back from, we indulged in so much seafood that we could almost feel gills beginning to form on our necks. Most fish and shellfish from the Adriatic Sea and the Venetian lagoon are so unlike anything we get at home that every meal was an adventure. Here are highlights.

 

Antipasti at Giorgione

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Friends who live part of every year in Venice took us to this simple family-run trattoria in their neighborhood. We started with granseola, a kind of spider crab, and cicale di mare, mantis shrimp. Both were simply boiled, chilled, and dressed with olive oil and lemon. Neither flavor resembles those of our blue claw crabs or shrimps of any size, but both were delicious.
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Main courses at
Al Covo

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This is a handsome, chef-owned, Slow Food member restaurant with a mission to “research, appreciate, defend and propose” the products of the territory around the Venetian lagoon. We ate there with our Venetian friends also, who patronize it often.
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My main course, above, was breaded and fried sarde “de alba” (“dawn” sardines: a name for fish caught first thing in the morning and cooked that same day) and canoce (another local name for mantis shrimp).
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These are the two halves of Tom’s main course, a fritto misto dell’Adriatico. It was served that way, in sequence, apparently so that none of the fried things would get cold. They were sole (smaller and sweeter than any variety we get here), anchovies, scallops, squid, shrimp, monkfish, polenta, and several vegetables. Enough food for a hungry boy scout troop..

 

Dinner at Ai Barbicani

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On our first visit to Venice, many years ago, we had two very pleasant dinners at this little restaurant in the city’s medieval section. We were delighted this year to find it still in business, warm, charming, and even better than we remembered. They presented us with welcoming glasses of Prosecco and good-night glasses of grappa.
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We each had this most unusual antipasto of marinated raw seafood. There were shrimps in raspberry sauce; anchovies in vinegar and currants; thin, thin strips of cuttlefish mantle, and nuggets of monkfish. Fascinating flavors and textures, very attractively presented.
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Then we had an extravaganza of mixed grilled seafood: There were two big sweet-fleshed scampi, two even bigger mazzancolle (king prawns), a large sole, a small salmon steak, and chunks of coda di rospo (the ubiquitous monkfish), all perfectly grilled and amazingly fresh and moist. Even the platter on which they were served was almost a work of art.
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Dinner at Osteria da Fiore

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This entire trip to Venice was a gift to ourselves for our 50th wedding anniversary, and on the day itself we dined luxuriously at this Michelin one-starred restaurant. It had what for us is an ideal combination of elegant French ambience and service with the best of lightly modernized traditional Venetian cooking. We adored it.

Our first courses were spaghetti with tartufi di mare (Venus clams) and agnolotti filled with fresh peas in a sauce of astice (spiny lobster) with fresh ginger – the latter a particularly intriguing exotic note.
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Small soft-shell crabs from the Venetian lagoon – moleche in Italian, moeche in Veneziano – are available only briefly in spring and fall. Delighted to find we were there just before the end of the season, we both chose them for our main course. Perfectly deep-fried, they were the best dish we ate in the entire trip.
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We also had our best wine of the trip at Fiore, which Tom talks about in his blog. All in all, a great celebratory trip and a wonderful meal for an important anniversary.

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Individual mozzarella soufflés make a nice, light first course for a dinner: simple, elegant, and delicious. True, all soufflés require special efforts, but these are much less trouble to make than large traditional ones. More of the preparation can be done in advance, assembly is easier, baking time is shorter, and the finished dish is not as fragile and quick to deflate as most soufflés are.

For this recipe, from Tom’s and my book La Tavola Italiana, there are two major considerations: having a lot of egg whites available (the recipe doesn’t use any yolks) and having an electric mixer capable of rapidly whipping the whites to stiffness. Those are easy for me, because (a) I often use more yolks than whites, so I keep a container of extra whites in the freezer, and (b) my heavy-duty Kitchen-Aid mixer whomps egg whites in next to no time.

Of course, the better the quality of the mozzarella you use, the better the soufflés will taste. As always with Italian cooking, the prima materia is crucial.

Are you still with me? I hope I haven’t discouraged anyone. What follows is an account of four of these little soufflés that I made the other day for dinner with my brother- and sister-in-law.

In the afternoon, well before dinnertime, I made up the sauce base. This required melting two tablespoons of butter in a pot, stirring in two tablespoons of flour, and cooking over low heat for two minutes, stirring and not letting the flour brown. Off heat, I dribbled in a cup of heavy cream, vigorously stirring to keep the mixture smooth. Then I returned the pan to low heat just long enough to stir in half a cup of grated parmigiano and eight ounces of diced mozzarella.
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This base sat at the back of the stove, uncovered and requiring no attention, for several hours. Also early in the day I defrosted ¾ cup of egg whites (six eggs’ worth) and buttered four 1½ cup ramekins and set them aside. In the evening, all that was left to do was whip the whites and fold them into the sauce base.
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For ease in getting them into and out of the oven all at once, I set the filled molds in a shallow (empty) baking pan.
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After 20 minutes at 375º the soufflés are normally done, but I think my oven needs adjustment; this time I had to give them 10 more minutes. They never do rise as high as conventional soufflés, so you don’t get airy towers of custard. But as I said above, they don’t sink as fast either, so you don’t have to sprint to get them – and your diners – to the table. Even when they do deflate a bit, they still have a lovely soft, pully texture under the thin, crisp crust. They have both intensity and delicacy of taste and texture that you wouldn’t think mozzarella would provide. In short, they’re a very satisfactory dish, well worth the effort required.
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There’s a rough, chunky Italian cookie that’s known as brutti ma buoni – ugly but good. At a dinner party of ours last week, the principal dishes all turned out that way: brutti ma buoni. It was one of those days when everything you touch tries to go wrong, and only luck kept the meal from being a disaster. This was the menu:

Mozzarella in Carozza
Spaghetti all’Amatriciana
Stuffed and Rolled Flank Steak
Sauteed Swiss Chard
Assorted Cheeses
Fig and Almond Crostata

I can’t blame unfamiliarity with these dishes, because I’d made them all before; most were even from Tom’s and my own recipes. Mercifully, Vicky and John, our guests for that evening, are good sports as well as adventurous eaters, so they were unperturbed by the appearance of their plates.

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The first setback was the antipasto, my mozzarella in carozza.

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This should have been a good-looking dish, as well as a delicious one. It’s made with slices of bread and slices of mozzarella, floured, egged, pressed together, and fried in olive oil. I’ve made this successfully for years (even wrote about it here once), but this time the egged bread tried to fall apart, and the mozzarella broke through its supposed-to-be-golden crust. Though it didn’t look at all appetizing, it still tasted much as it ought, and we all ate it happily enough, along with a little sauce of anchovy, butter, and cream.
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The spaghetti all’amatriciana also was from one of my recipes, this one in La Tavola Italiana.

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The only thing wrong with the pasta this evening was that the classic recipe uses bucatini, not spaghetti, and I only discovered that I didn’t have enough bucatini for four when it was too late to run out and buy more. Though very plain-looking, the dish tasted especially good because the tomato sauce was enriched by a particularly flavorful artisan variety of guanciale (air-cured pork jowl) that we’d smuggled in (shh!) from our last trip to Rome.
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But then came the stuffed flank steak: braciolone alla napoletana, yet another recipe from La Tavola Italiana. To get the full effect of this near-disaster requires several illustrations.

The flank steak, butterflied by our butcher

 

The stuffing ingredients: prosciutto ground together with parsley and garlic, plus golden raisins, pine nuts, breadcrumbs, an egg, and grated pecorino romano

 

The flank steak trimmed and spread with the stuffing

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Now, here was the first problem: Which way should I roll that meat? Starting at the short side would have made a great blimp of a cylinder, with many opportunities for the filling to leak out during the cooking. So I rolled from the long side, making a long skinny tube.
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The size of it presented the second problem: Do I have a pot that will hold a 14-inch long roll? It had to be my ancient, rarely used 13-quart Creuset Dutch oven. (I could hardly lift the 21-pound monster out of its place in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet.)

Starting to brown the roll, along with chopped onion, carrot, and celery

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I’d placed the roll in the pot seam-side down, hoping it would seal. Nope! What it did was spread open as far as it could around the strings, as the meat shrank during the cooking. With the stuffing exposed that way, I didn’t dare turn the roll at all for the hour of slow, gentle cooking it would need. So I poured in white wine and diluted tomato paste, covered the pot, and looked in every 15 minutes to baste the meat with the juices and be sure it wasn’t sticking to the pot.

When fully cooked, the roll was definitely brutti.
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Maneuvering the meat out of that deep pot onto a cutting board without its breaking apart was a little tricky but we did it. And despite my fears, when I cut off the strings it stayed intact. In fact, it divided into not-bad-looking thick chunks for serving.

And if I do say so myself, the beef and its stuffing were both delicious: genuinely buoni.
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In retrospect, I can see it was a mistake to spread the stuffing all over the butterflied steak. In previous (forgotten, evidently) cases, I must have mounded the stuffing in the center and closed the meat over it, with enough overlap to ensure the stuffing stayed covered. I’d better annotate my recipe to that effect, to avoid imperiling future dinners.

The cheese tray, requiring no cooking or manipulation, was safely beyond my ability to harm it, but my dessert, the fig and almond tart, was one more barely averted disaster. I’ll save the rest of that story for my next post.

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Whenever I cook duck legs for dinner, Tom and I remark that we should have them more often. These small, neat packets of succulence are far easier to prepare – and have a higher proportion of meat to bone and fat – than a whole duck. Legs aren’t always available in stores, however, so on our occasional day trips out to eastern Long Island I always try to get some from a poultry farm that we patronize.

That part of Long Island has long been famous for raising Pekin ducks. Back in the 1930s it’s said that there were as many as 90 duck farms in the area. One that I remember fondly from family summer vacations in my youth was this one, known to all and sundry as The Big Duck.
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This 30-foot long, 20-foot high creature was originally the duck farm’s retail store. Now a tourist center and gift shop, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Back now to my kitchen, where I looked through my books for something luscious to do with a pair of my recently acquired legs. I found it in an unexpected place: Venetian Cooking, by H.F. Bruning Jr. and Cavaliere Umberto Bullo. The authors frankly say “in the Venetian diet poultry comes a bad third after seafood and meat,” but they provide a handful of recipes for it, including one for Anatra in Umido, braised duckling. (Maybe, since ducks are waterfowl, Venetians think of them as feathered fish?)

Italian duck breeds being much less fatty than Pekins, I did have to scrape some fat from my legs, but they didn’t have the gobs and layers of it that other parts of a duck’s anatomy have. I suppose that’s because legs do all the work in the water, which keeps them muscular, while the rest of the body just floats along on top, fat keeping it warm.
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As often is the case, I was scaling down a recipe for a whole cut-up duck, so my faithful knife man did the initial job of chopping two stalks of celery, a third of a large onion, and a third of a carrot. While he was doing that, I heated a flameproof casserole and lightly browned the legs in butter and olive oil.
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The legs came out to a plate and the vegetables went in, to cook gently over low heat.
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When the onions were translucent, I stirred in salt, pepper, and just a little liquid – 4 teaspoons of tomato sauce and 2½ tablespoons of water – returned the legs to the pot, and brought the liquid to a simmer.
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From this point on, all the dish requires is patience: It took two hours of simmering, but the result was well worth the time. The legs were fork-tender and luscious, and the nubbly sauce was a rich melange of vegetable flavors. Crisp sautéed potatoes and good Italian frozen peas made excellent foils for both meat and sauce.
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“Rich” and “luscious” are unquestionably overworked words in the food vocabulary, but they’re unavoidably accurate to describe a fine duck dish like this one.

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Yes, spring is just a week away, but winter has not started loosening its grip yet. There are still days that are so raw and cold and windy that I can hardly force myself to get out of the house even for essential errands. When I do, nothing thaws me out and comforts me like coming home to a bowl of hearty homemade soup.

I like trying new soup recipes, as regular readers of this blog should know: I’ve published posts about more than 30 kinds. One of my good sources is Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Its soup chapter contains 19 recipes, several of which I’ve made. I wrote about two of them here. This time around, I tried two more.

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First I made a simple Barley and Leek Soup, which the recipe said would serve four. I started by chopping two leeks, a stalk of celery, and a carrot, and sauteeing them in olive oil along with a sprinkling of thyme.
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Next I was to add a cup of barley and 6 cups of broth, bring it to a simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, or until the barley was tender. Tom, who had been looking on with a knife expert’s interest while I chopped the vegetables, totally disbelieved the quantity of barley. “That’s going to absorb all the liquid and swell to triple the amount!” he warned. I knew he was probably right, but I was determined to follow the recipe, and I did.

It was way too much barley. It swelled to about four times its bulk and indeed absorbed all the liquid, ending up as thick as a risotto. The recipe didn’t even say to cover the pot, but I did, given that long cooking time. It did say I could add a little water if it was too thick at the end. A little? I had to stir in two whole cups of water, just to turn it back into a soup.

Diluted down, seasoned generously with salt and pepper, and topped with grated parmigiano, the soup came out well. I would have liked the leek to be more prominent: less barley would have made for a better balance. But the soup’s mild flavor and soft texture were very comforting.
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And it’s a good thing that it was a good soup, because that four-serving recipe made enough for at least eight. Happily, soups freeze well.

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A few days later, with my soup jones still pestering me, I turned to the book’s Lentil, Potato and Spinach Soup. This recipe was to serve 4 to 6. With caution born of the preceding experience, I considered the fact that it called for a whole cup of lentils and decided to make half a recipe’s worth.

This time, I put chopped carrot, celery, and onion, plus rosemary and thyme, into the soup pot with olive oil and cooked for 10 minutes to soften the vegetables.
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I added a minced clove of garlic and continued cooking for a minute; stirred in half a cup of lentils and a tablespoon of tomato paste; and added a diced all-purpose potato, salt, pepper, and three cups of water. As before, I simmered the soup for 45 minutes, stirring often to keep the lentils from sticking to the bottom of the pot. And as before, the lentils behaved just like the barley and absorbed so much water they made a porridge. I had to add another whole cup of water to bring it back to soup.

For the last step, I tore up enough cleaned spinach leaves to pack into a one-cup measure, stirred them into the soup, and continued cooking just long enough to wilt them. At serving time, as the recipe suggested, I drizzled olive oil onto each bowlful.

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This was also a good soup – a little more complex in flavor than the previous one. The lentils were the prominent ingredient, with the spinach and potatoes offering nice color and texture contrasts. And, as I’d suspected it would, the “two-serving” half recipe made four generous bowlfuls.

I have to wonder if there was a copyediting glitch somewhere in that book. But look on the bright side: With people to feed, a recipe that makes too much is better than one that makes too little.

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The other day I idly pulled out my copy of Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking. I’ve had the book ever since it appeared in 1978 but have rarely used it in recent years. Turning pages, I found many recipes I’d completely forgotten about.

Now, I yield to nobody in my reverence for Marcella – “the first name in Italian cooking,” as she was billed in her early days – but this, her second book, is not in my opinion equal to her first. There she stayed mainly in her comfort zone of Bolognese and Emilia-Romagna cooking, but here she broadens out to other Italian regions. I feel that her southern Italian recipes, especially, don’t reflect the sure hand she had with the dishes of her native region.

Ignoring those reservations on this occasion, I was attracted to her Sicilian recipe for Bocconcini di Pesce Spada Fritto – fried swordfish tidbits. In the headnote she says Sicily has the finest swordfish in the world. From my admittedly modest experience in that region, I agree. She also says this preparation keeps swordfish “as moist and tender as it was when it first came out of the sea.” For that, I’d give it a try.

The recipe needs fairly thin slices of the fish. I was able to get my local fish store to butterfly a New-York-standard-sized swordfish steak to yield two more or less ¾-inch thick pieces.
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I cut them into smaller pieces, as directed, and put them into a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, salt, and pepper for two hours at room temperature, turning the “tidbits” occasionally.
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Then they had to be patted dry and dipped in egg and flour to be ready for frying.
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Next, I may have made a bad mistake. I had some lightly used frying oil that could handle one more use, so I poured it into a pan and got it hot – without rechecking the recipe’s instruction. Which, I saw when I did look back, called for only ¼ inch of oil. Mine was over an inch deep. Well, I said to myself, this fish is to be fried, not sauteed. Surely it will cook just as well, and probably even faster, this way. So in the pieces went.
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They took quite a bit longer than I expected to develop the indicated light golden crust, and even though I’d carefully shaken off the excess egg and the excess flour, the coating seemed unusually thick and rough.
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To my regret, I can only call this dish mediocre. The swordfish had stayed moist, all right, but the strong flavor of eggy, oily crust was the predominant note on the palate. That, and maybe also the oil in the marinade, seemed to increase, rather than counteract, swordfish’s natural oiliness. Even fresh lemon juice couldn’t redeem it.

Possibly my fish steak wasn’t as fresh as it could have been? I loved all the swordfish I’d eaten in Sicily. Maybe if my fish had been caught in the Straits of Messina, by the local ages-old method, and brought to the table within a day, it would have been a whole different thing. Maybe I ruined it by my inattention to detail in the frying. Or maybe Marcella didn’t entirely succeed in translating the Sicilian dish for the American kitchen. Or possibly all of the above: there are days like that.

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Every now and then I come across something in the back of a pantry shelf that I’d completely forgotten about. Current case in point: most of a package of imported Italian dried chickpeas. Since they clearly had seniority among my dried beans and pulses, I felt I should make a special effort to use them.

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A timely email newsletter I received from the heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo featured a recipe for a winter salad of garbanzo beans (Rancho G uses the hispanic name) and carrots. So I started by making that.
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I soaked my chickpeas overnight in cold water. Next day I tossed them in a small mince of carrot, onion, and celery sauteed in olive oil, covered them generously with water, simmered until they were tender, drained and let them cool.

The remaining vegetables were raw: grated carrot, thinly sliced shallot, minced garlic, and chopped parsley. All were tossed together with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and ground cumin. I cut back on the recipe’s carrot quantity. It wanted 5 or 6 large ones to a cup of cooked chickpeas, which seemed like much too much.

It made a pretty dish, but it’s definitely one for lovers of the allium family: the amount of shallot and garlic were almost shocking at first taste. But the interplay of that sharpness with the sweetness of the carrot, the savoriness of the chickpeas, and the spiciness of the cumin grew on me. I wouldn’t want it often, but it was an interesting discovery.

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Next I tried a new-to-me chickpea soup. Soupe aux pois chiche is a Languedoc recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, a book I usually find very reliable. This dish was not a success.
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Several aspects of the instructions seemed peculiar. To start with, there was an odd initial treatment of the chickpeas. After an overnight soak, there was a one-hour simmer, uncovered, starting with fresh water; then another uncovered simmer, in yet more fresh water, for another hour or more, until the chickpeas were tender. Wouldn’t all that plain water leach out some of the peas’ flavor?

Meanwhile I softened a sliced onion and a big sliced leek in olive oil, added a cut-up tomato, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I was supposed to drain the chickpeas; return the water to the pot and bring it to a boil; add the sauteed vegetables and half the chickpeas; and cook until they could be crushed easily. The rest of the chickpeas were to be kept for another recipe. What was the point of that?! I just used half the amount of chickpeas to begin with.

I pureed the soup, reheated it and served it with croutons, as directed. It was totally insipid. The chickpeas could have been excelsior, the other vegetables were undetectable, salt was desperately needed, and when it went in, salt was all you could taste. I expect to occasionally come upon recipes I don’t like, even from cooks I respect, but this one was truly dismal.

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After that disappointment, I turned to a tried and true recipe for the rest of my chickpeas: pasta e ceci, from Tom’s and my second cookbook, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. The dish this simple recipe produces is the sort of thick soup or wet pasta on which generations of Italian peasants gratefully survived winter. Pure southern Italian soul food.
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After the chickpeas are initially reconstituted (the recipe uses the two-minute boil plus two-hour hot-water soak method rather than the overnight cold-water soak; either is fine), they’re drained, returned to the pot, and stewed with canned Italian plum tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and fresh water, absorbing flavor as they go. Needing only an occasional stir, the chickpeas simmer along gently until tender. Since that can be anywhere from two or four hours, depending on their freshness, it’s good to do this in advance.

The pot can sit on the back of the stove until dinner time approaches. Then you bring it to a boil, stir in short pasta, such as shells or ditalini, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the pasta is done. Add an aromatic mince of garlic, basil, and parsley, some olive oil, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and serve. Ambrosia!

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