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If you’re going to start a year with leftovers in your refrigerator, caviar is a mighty nice one to have. For some years, Tom’s and my Christmas gifts to each other have not been those that can be wrapped and put under the Tree to await the magical gift opening time. Mostly, we indulge ourselves collectively with special things to eat – like foie gras and caviar.

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Some of this good American transmontanus caviar was left over from our Christmas Eve indulgence. It would’ve been a sin to let it get stale. Months ago, I’d marked a recipe in Faith Willinger’s Red, White, and Green cookbook for Tuscan-style white beans and caviar. She calls it a terrific combination, declaring that beans are “a far better match for caviar than tasteless white bread toast,” and extra virgin olive oil is “a more sophisticated match than butter.” Really? Here was my chance to find out.

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The white beans I currently have in my pantry are alubia blanca, a small, delicate, creamy variety that I get from Rancho Gordo. I gave half a cup of them an overnight soak in cold water. By morning, they’d swelled to triple their bulk, as usual. Following the recipe, I drained them, put them in a pot with three cups of fresh cold water, and added a sage leaf, a piece of bay leaf, and a tiny clove of unpeeled garlic.

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As they came to a boil, I skimmed the white scum that arose, then covered the pot tightly, simmered it until the beans were tender – only about 40 minutes, because they were so fresh – and moved the pot to the back of the stove.

In the evening I reheated the beans, drained them and tossed them gently with salt, pepper, and a good extra virgin olive oil. There were more of them than we’d be able to eat for an antipasto course, but I knew the extras would keep. I distributed modest portions of beans on two small plates and topped them with all the remaining caviar – a couple of big tablespoons each. Tom opened a small bottle of champagne to go with them, as appropriate for caviar and a new year.
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The combination really was very good! I wouldn’t quite call it a far better match – the white bread I make is definitely not tasteless – but an interesting and different one. The beans and caviar set each other off very nicely, making an intriguing blend of homeliness and elegance. This is a dish that I can see gracing many future holiday meals.

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During Tom’s and my recent trip to Rome, our hotel’s former broad, open breakfast buffet was displayed within glass cases and dispensed by gloved staff members. (Thanks, covid.) Among the generous array of breads, cakes, pastries, fruits, meats, and cheeses were slices of what looked like pound cake, which the servers encouraged us to have: “amor di polenta – very good – polenta cake.” I’d never heard of it, but we tried it, and indeed it was very good: a sweet, light, golden cornbread, unlike any I’d tasted before. It became a breakfast staple of our stay in Rome.

Back home, I wanted to learn to make this hitherto unknown treat, so I googled the name. Egad: Amor polenta recipes were all over the Web, in both Italian and English. Well! Time to make its acquaintance.
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I discovered that amor polenta is a specialty of Varese, a province in northern Lombardy. It’s much like a pound cake, made with only flour, butter, sugar, and egg: no other liquid. The intriguing flavor comes from a mixture of white flour, almond flour, and fine cornmeal.

I downloaded a few recipes for comparison and settled on this one to take as my model. Being in Italian, it lists ingredients in grams, so I began by measuring out the three flours on my kitchen scale: 100 grams (3.5 oz) of cornmeal, 80 grams (2.8 oz) of white flour, and 70 grams (2.5 oz) of almond flour.
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Then I took out my heavy-duty mixer – an appliance that the recipe calls a planetaria. Not a name I’d known. I imagine it must be because the beaters simultaneously rotate and orbit, like planets. I love the idea of having a planetarium in my kitchen! But I digress.

In the machine I whomped 100 grams (3½ oz) of softened butter with 120 grams (4.2 oz) of sugar, added two eggs, one at a time, and beat it all into a smooth cream. At this point, the recipe asked for the seeds of a vanilla bean to be stirred in. Instead, I used ½ teaspoon of vanilla extract.
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Next, I had to mix in the dry ingredients. The recipe insisted on their being added in sequence, with the mixer running: first, the cornmeal; second, the white flour; third, the almond flour. I can’t think why; maybe it’s something folkloric. But I did as prescribed. And ended with ½ teaspoon of baking powder. Finally, the recipe wanted 10 grams of rum stirred in. We don’t keep rum in the house, so I used a teaspoon of grappa.
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There is a special baking pan for amor polenta, which gives the traditional domed, ribbed slices visible in many of the google images above. Since I didn’t have one, I scraped my very dense batter into a buttered 10″x4″ loaf pan.
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The loaf baked for 45 minutes at 350° and developed a typical pound cake crack down the middle. (You wouldn’t see that if you used the amor polenta pan, since the loaf is turned out onto the plate upside down.) It was attractively golden and fragrant, but it hadn’t risen very high. (The recipe hadn’t indicated a size for the pan, so I guess mine was a little too large.)
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It had the fine taste and texture we remembered from Rome, confirming its seductive aroma. Lovely for breakfast, and no doubt will be excellent too with afternoon tea or coffee. The recipe suggested dusting the top with powdered sugar, but it was already sweet enough for us. I might even try a small adjustment next time: a slightly larger proportion of polenta flour and a small reduction in the sugar. No great matter: Even with no further tinkering, amor polenta could easily become a breakfast staple for us here at home.

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I’m just back from 10 days in Rome. Much about the trip was lovely, some was stressful, but from the gastronomic viewpoint it was a pure delight. Tom and I ate wonderfully well at old favorite restaurants and a few new ones, mostly choosing traditional Roman specialties. I already long to taste those dishes again!

Our last dinner on the trip was at La Matricianella, an almost aggressively traditional Roman restaurant in the city’s historic center, which we’ve patronized with pleasure for more than a decade. This time, after a carciofo alla giudia (deep-fried artichoke) for me and two fiori fritti (batter-fried cheese-stuffed squash flowers) for Tom, we both ordered trippa alla romana: tripe Roman-style.

Here is a poor photo of my dish – the room’s lighting confounded my simple camera – but take my word, it was ambrosia. We thought it was the best trippa all romana we’d ever had.
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As soon as we began planning meals at home, I knew I wanted to try recreating that dish. I’d never made tripe in that style before, but there are recipes for it in every Roman cookbook. The main problem is, we can’t get the right kind of tripe here in the USA. We have only honeycomb – one of the four kinds of beef tripe used in the dish in Italy. All are just different enough in flavor and texture to make the true dish inimitable. Still, I’d do my best.

I picked up a pound of tripe from the butcher, and Tom cut it for me in bite-size chunks.

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For the cooking, I adapted steps from several cookbook recipes. First, I boiled the tripe in plain salted water until it was tender. That took all of three hours. Fortunately, I’d expected as much and had started very early. When the tripe was ready, I sauteed a mince of carrot, celery, and onion in olive oil for five minutes.
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I added the drained tripe, stirred it around in the pan, and poured on a quarter cup of red wine – which the tripe just sucked up immediately.
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Next came a cup of my own tomato sauce, preserved from the summer’s San Marzano tomatoes, salt, black pepper, and a pinch of ground clove. All that simmered, covered, for half an hour, to blend the flavors, and the dish was done.
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The pan sat at the back of the stove until I reheated it at dinner time. I served the tripe topped with freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese. (The cheese should have been mixed with chopped mentuccia, the special Roman mint, but I have only ordinary domestic mint, a flavor so different, I didn’t want to chance it.)
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So: This was a perfectly good plate of food. Tripe tender and flavorful, sauce very tasty too. Unquestionably pleasing for innard lovers. But overall, it didn’t rise to the character of true trippa alla Romana. It was a bit monotone from the single variety of tripe, and it lacked zing, somehow. Probably I should have added a peperoncino, that tiny dried red pepper that perks up so many Italian tomato sauces. But we still wouldn’t have had the Ur-Roman ambiance of La Matricianella.
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Image from matricianella.it

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Sigh. When will we ever get back to Rome again?

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Wild Boar Stew

For a special dinner recently, Tom placed an online order for foie gras from d’Artagnan, and then, on an impulse, he included a package of wild boar stew meat. I’ve only ever cooked boar a few times in my life, but I was game to try working it into the menu for his special dinner.

A truly wild boar, from which this meat was asserted to come, is a tough, muscular animal. It requires long cooking, traditionally preceded by long marination to break down the fibers and tenderize it. Evidently, all that marination actually does is enhance flavor, but I don’t see anything wrong with enhancing flavor, so I was willing to marinate my boar anyway.

Most recipes for boar are extremely complicated, but I found a relatively easy one for stufato di cinghiale, wild boar stew, in Wilma Pezzini’s Tuscan Cookbook. This modest book has produced consistently excellent results for me, so I happily adopted its approach. It called for two pounds of wild boar shoulder meat, which would be perfect for a dinner for four.

 

The marinade was a lively mixture of red wine, wine vinegar, cinnamon, cloves, salt, black pepper, and three fresh herbs: basil, sage, and thyme. The pieces of boar soaked in it for two days: in the refrigerator at night and on the kitchen counter during the day. I turned the pieces a few times, when I remembered to do so.

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When it was time to cook the stew – one day before the dinner party, because stews are always better the second day – I drained the meat, rinsed it in warm water, and dried each piece individually.
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Then came flouring, salting, and peppering the pieces before putting them in a casserole, where they browned in olive oil along with chopped garlic and fresh rosemary.

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I must admit they didn’t brown very much, having taken on a purplish hue from the marination. But the surfaces sealed, which was the point. Next, I added two skinned and chopped plum tomatoes, a cup of mixed broth, and half a cup of red wine, stirring well to deglaze the casserole.
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Covered, the stew simmered over low flame for an hour to start. At that point it had to receive another cup of broth and half cup of wine. I also added an ingredient not in the recipe: half a pound of small cremini mushrooms. It just seemed like a good idea. (It was.)
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After a second hour and part of a third, the boar had become nicely tender. I turned off the heat and left the pot on a windowsill, covered, for the rest of the day; then refrigerated it overnight. The next day, as dinner time approached, I slowly reheated the casserole – uncovered, to thicken the sauce.

The meat had turned a rich, warm golden brown, as had the gravy. And the stew was superb – mushrooms included. Luscious! Everything you could ask for in a dish of wild game. We at the table were very happy indeed.
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Here’s a little background about that special dinner. It arose because Tom needed a post for his blog about his October cellar selection wine, which was a 1989 Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Émile, vendange tardive. The foie gras was ordered to match with that extraordinary late-harvest wine. Which it did, splendidly. You can read about it here.

It would have been a sin not to share that experience with other food and wine lovers, so we’d invited two good friends to dine with us. The rest of the dinner took shape around that match.

We had aperitifs in the living room, with champagne. The foie gras and a dab of fig compote, with the Riesling. The boar, with fresh egg noodles and roasted green beans, with a 2006 La Millière Châteauneuf du Pape. A cheese platter, with a 2004 Château Léoville Poyferré Saint-Julien. And for dessert (without wine), a silky panna cotta with a compote of fresh peaches.
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That was a dinner to remember! It’s too bad we have no more of that gorgeous old Riesling to serve as an excuse for another such indulgence.

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Chicken with peppers is a favorite dish of mine. I like to prepare it Roman-style, usually from my own recipe in La Tavola Italiana. This time I made a Piedmont-style version from Faith Willinger’s cookbook Red, White & Greens, which my friend Betty recently gave me. The recipe is very different from the Roman approach.

The difference is characteristically regional: southern Italian simplicity vs. northern Italian complexity. The Roman dish uses very few other ingredients: tomatoes, white wine, salt, and pepper. The Piedmontese dish calls for a bevy of additional items, including pork, aromatic vegetables, sweet spices, and vinegar. I was intrigued by the number of flavors, and also by some small procedural matters.

Willinger says the recipe is primarily used for rabbit but can be made with chicken to accommodate squeamish persons. She urges skinning the chicken, for rabbit-like leanness. I like rabbit, but Tom doesn’t (too many tiny bones). We don’t mind chicken skin, but I did skin my cut-up half chicken, just for appearance.
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Tom minced onion, celery, carrot, garlic, pancetta, and rosemary for me, which was to be cooked slowly in olive oil for 10 to 15 minutes. Normally I’d warm the oil in the pot and then add those ingredients. Willinger’s way is to put them in a cold pot, pour on the oil, stir it around, then turn on the heat. OK, I did that, and it worked all right.
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While the vegetables were softening, I salted and peppered the chicken pieces, tossed them with a little olive oil, and browned them lightly in a nonstick frying pan. Again, Willinger’s way was just the opposite of mine: I’d have heated the olive oil in the pan, then put in the chicken pieces. But again, I did it her way.
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Meanwhile, I assembled the next batch of ingredients: sliced peppers, chopped tomatoes, cinnamon, cloves, and ½ cup of red wine. Willinger suggested peeling the raw peppers, for digestibility, but we’ve never had any such trouble with peppers, so I didn’t.
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Next, the chicken and all those accompaniments were to be mixed in with the vegetables and the pot simmered, uncovered, for 30 to 40 minutes; with ¼ cup more wine added if necessary. There I felt I had to diverge from the instructions. Perhaps I’d taken too large a pot, but cooking it uncovered for that long would have reduced the liquid so fast, it’d have needed far more wine to keep the chicken from frying. I covered the pot. And that worked all right too.
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When the chicken was tender, I transferred the pieces to a serving dish to keep warm and stirred the final condiments into the peppers and sauce: a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg. After five more minutes, I poured peppers and sauce over the chicken and served.
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This was a very good dish. All the varied seasonings had blended into a rich, mellow sauce with just a touch of sweet spice. The peppers had absorbed and basked in the flavor, which gave a nice balance to their natural acidity. The chicken, oddly, hadn’t. With all the time it had simmered in that sauce, the bird still tasted only of itself. A bit of a mystery there, but the peppers and sauce were so good, they overrode the plainness of the chicken. But next time maybe I’ll try a rabbit.

 

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Police inspector Salvo Montalbano, hero of Andrea Camilleri’s Sicilian mystery novels, is an impassioned consumer of local foods, eating his way through dishes often fully described in the books. The latest volume gives Montalbano a role reversal: he goes undercover as the cook aboard a mega-yacht cruise that will be hosting an international criminal summit.

Readers, please note: If you haven’t read The Cook of the Halcyon but intend to, you might want to skip this post. I won’t be able to avoid spoilers.

Between the yacht’s crew and the guests, Montalbano will have to make meals for 12 people. To prepare for the role, he gathers recipes from his housekeeper, Adelina, and his restaurateur friend, Enzo. And he manages the cooking well, once on the ship – a fact that devoted Montalbano fans may find hard to credit, as he has never before been known to cook anything whatsoever. But so we are told.

On a critical day in the cruise, Montalbano makes a potato gâteau for the dinner’s first course. (In the book’s original Italian, the word may have been gattò.) He uses a big sack of potatoes, a dozen eggs, two kinds of cheese, ham, olives, and one very special item. The combination sounded interesting, so I thought I’d try to create a tiny version. Here are my ingredients.
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In the front are two ounces of chopped Castelvetrano olives, two ounces of chopped fontina cheese, and two ounces of chopped ham. Behind them are one egg white, one whole egg, and some grated Parmigiano. On the right, one pound of potatoes, mashed.

I beat the whole egg into the potatoes, spread half of them in a small buttered casserole dish, laid on the three chopped ingredients, and topped with grated cheese.

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I covered the filling with the remaining potatoes and spread the extra egg white over the top, as Montalbano did. My only divergence from his procedure was omission of the “very special item.” Verb. sap. sat.
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Montalbano baked his gâteau for half an hour, and his egg white topping became a brown glaze. We aren’t given an oven temperature, so I tried 350°. Not hot enough: after an extra 10 minutes, I raised the heat to 400°, and though my gâteau eventually firmed up well and even puffed a little, the glaze had spread unevenly and hardly colored at all.
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Nevertheless, it was a very tasty dish. On the plate, the potatoes and filling made a nicely varied flavor blend – piqued by the excellent Castelvetrano olives. The gâteau could certainly have stood alone as a first course, though it went very well alongside our sauteed fillets of sea bass.
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The only part of it we didn’t care for was the glaze, which was mostly a dry skin. Next time, instead of the egg whites, I’ll dot butter over the top layer of potatoes. This is a versatile dish that I can imagine pairing with almost any dry-cooked fish, fowl, or flesh. One could easily vary the filling ingredients, too.

P.S.  As readers of the book well know, Montalbano’s own gâteau was a truly memorable dish for the guests and crew of the Halcyon.

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If this summer’s Olympics had had an event for Dumb Cooking Mistakes, I’d have gotten a gold. It was by pure luck that I was able to salvage the very promising Italian vegetable dish on which I had committed the idiocy.

But let me tell it from the beginning.

From the collection of summer vegetables I’d written about here last week, there was one left of the small eggplants, still firm, plump, and shiny.
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I’d saved it to use for a recipe simply called Eggplant with Mozzarella, which I’d noticed for the first time while browsing the vegetable section of this little Neapolitan cookbook – another book I’ve had for years, where I can still discover treasures.

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Basically, you fry eggplant slices, sandwich a slice of mozzarella between each pair, and bake them in the oven with tomato sauce, beaten egg, and grated parmigiano for just 15 minutes. Seemed easy enough. I peeled and sliced my eggplant, salted the slices, and left them in a colander for half an hour to drain off some of their liquid.

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Then I pressed them dry in a cloth, floured them, and browned them well in olive oil.
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Here are half the slices, placed in the baking dish, topped with mozzarella, and awaiting the upper halves of the sandwiches. The sauce ingredients are sitting behind them. All well so far.
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But then I made my ridiculous blooper. This is what the recipe says:

Cospargere le melanzane ripiene con due uova battute con sale e pepe, qualche cucchiaiata di salsa di pomodoro e una spolverata di parmigiano grattugiato.

Now, in a well written English recipe, that might be given as “Beat two eggs with salt, pepper, a few tablespoons of tomato sauce and a sprinkling of grated parmigiano. Pour the mixture over the stuffed eggplant.”

But the phrasing of the Italian is, “Spread over the stuffed eggplant two eggs beaten with salt and pepper, a few tablespoons of tomato sauce and a sprinkling of grated parmigiano.” So what I did was add the three things one after the other. I somehow had the idea that they’d all blend together in the oven.
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Anyone with half a brain would have realized that wouldn’t happen. When I looked in after the dish was in the oven for a little while, everything still sat right where I’d put it and the egg was already firming up on its own. Aarrgh!

I pulled out the dish and quickly tried to scrape the tomato sauce and cheese off the eggplant, mix them into the half-scrambled puddle of egg, and spoon some of it back over the eggplant. Didn’t work all that well, but I put the dish back into the oven to finish its 15 minutes of baking.

It came out pretty sad looking.

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But the gods who take care of culinary idiots were on the job that day, because those little “sandwiches” were fabulous. Yes, you could see that the egg and tomato hadn’t come together properly, but in the mouth their flavors blended brilliantly. It was one of those magical “whole is better than the sum of the parts” creations. And it got even better as it cooled.

Tom had initially raised an eyebrow, but then we both scarfed down every bit. I was so relieved!

 

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What would we do without the summer’s bounty of fresh tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants? Alone and in combinations, these vegetables are fundamental to many of the world’s cuisines, and – IMO – none more simple, savory, and ingenious than Italy’s. I’ve been trying some new recipes for that vegetable trinity from my little Italian regional cookbooks. This one, for eggplant-stuffed peppers, is from Rome.
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The filling for these peppers starts in a very traditional way, with garlic, parsley, and anchovy sauteed in a little olive oil.
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Then you add the eggplant, which, in the typical nonchalance of Italian recipe writers, are said to be cut in pezzetti ­– pieces; no size given. My talented knife man has his own views about cutting vegetables, and he patiently created charming little cubes for me.
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I stirred the eggplant long enough to insaporire – i.e., flavor it with the seasoned oil. (Actually, it absorbed the oil so fast I had to add more to keep the cubes from sticking, but only a little: There’s almost no limit to the amount of oil that eggplant will suck up. That’s why, in one version of the famous Turkish eggplant dish legend, the imam fainted.) Then I added chopped tomatoes, capers, salt, and pepper, and cooked it all gently for 20 minutes.
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Next was to prepare the peppers: I washed and halved them lengthwise, cut out the seeds and interior membrane, sprinkled them with salt, and set them in an oiled baking dish. When the eggplant filling was ready, I filled the pepper cases with it.
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The peppers were to bake in a hot oven for about 25 minutes. Mine were quite thick-walled, and I thought they might take longer than that to soften. So I gave each one a little drizzle of extra olive oil in case of need and baked them at 400°. Indeed, they took about 10 minutes more.
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They came out looking a little wizened, but they certainly smelled good. (Next time I’ll brush the cut pepper edges with oil, too.) Knowing that many baked Italian dishes are better if not served immediately out of the oven, I let them cool just a little while. Then we ate them alongside roast duck and a potato gallette.
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They were excellent. The eggplant, now lusciously soft, had taken in and harmonized all the flavors of its accompaniments, while the peppers retained just enough freshness and crunch for a textural and flavor contrast.

The two stuffed pepper halves we didn’t eat that evening held until the next day, when I gratineed them with a topping of mozzarella. They were even better! The eggplant had become as rich as meat; both it and the peppers loved the melted cheese. The combination was good enough to serve as a primary recipe in its own right: It could make a fine lunch or a first course at dinner.

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A brief heat wave earlier this month made me think about a picnic. Normally, I can take picnic fixings up onto my building’s roof garden, but this spring a very aggressive mockingbird who has a nest somewhere up there has taken to dive-bombing anyone he regards as encroaching on his territory. His beak is sharp and his aim is good.

Oh, well. A picnic in the dining room can be pleasant too, and there we have air conditioning, comfortable chairs, and a good CD player. And no avian attackers.

One of Tom’s and my favorite dishes for hot-weather fare is a big salade niçoise. But it’s still too early in the season for the fully ripe field-grown tomatoes and freshly dug potatoes that the dish wants, so I looked for other cold-platter combinations.

It so happened that I had many new choices just then. My friend Betty, who was downsizing her book collection, had dropped off a pile of cookbooks for me to look at, in case I might want any of them. A 1986 volume called A Taste of Italy, by Antonio Carluccio, a British restaurateur, had a number of interesting looking recipes, including three new-to-me antipasto items that I made for my picnic platter.

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What you see here are raw-beef meatballs, eggs stuffed with tuna, eggplant rolls, an heirloom tomato (hothouse, but best I could find), and a wedge of sheep-milk ricotta. The green wisps around the edge of the plate are bits of cilantro that I managed to snip from a plant in my rooftop herb collection before the militant mockingbird chased me away.

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Uova Ripiene di Tonno

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Deviled eggs are a time-honored summer treat. I usually mash their yolks with whatever condiments I feel like pulling out of the refrigerator that day – mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, soy, Worcestershire, Cholula, pimentòn, capers, cornichons? This recipe, more restrained, calls for a lot of canned tuna and only a little mayonnaise, parsley, capers, and black pepper. That way, the balls of filling are the main component of the dish, the whites merely a casing. Especially if made with the rich Italian belly tuna called ventresca, it’s a tasty little dish. (The parsley was also from my roof, snuck out under the baleful eye of that bird.)

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Insalata di Carne Cruda

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While steak tartare is always eaten immediately after its preparation, the raw beef here is minced together with parsley and garlic; dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and black pepper; and held in the refrigerator for a whole day before being eaten. That made the lemon juice “cook” my beef like seviche, turning its bright red color to grayish pink and somehow flattening all its rich meatiness. The headnote calls this a popular Piedmontese recipe, but the versions of carne cruda that I know are made with veal, not beef; and lemon juice is added only at the last minute. For me, this was a terrible way to treat excellent sirloin.

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Involtini di Melanzane

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These eggplant rolls tasted better than they looked. My eggplant (store-bought; too early for local ones) had excessively well-developed seeds. Sliced thin, the flesh around its seeds had very little substance. Browned in olive oil, drained, and spread with a chopping of parsley, pine nuts, capers, and garlic, the slices were too fragile to roll properly. Folded over and baked for 20 minutes, they darkened too much at the ends and partially burst open at the middle. Annoying! But this treatment has promise. I’ll try it again, with a fresher, less mature eggplant that I’ll cut in somewhat thicker slices.

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All in all, though, that platterful made a nice first-of-the-year indoor picnic. So far, I’d call the score for this cookbook a hit, a miss, and a maybe. I’ve marked a dozen of its other recipes for trying someday, so we’ll see how that score changes over time. Good thing it doesn’t have a recipe for spit-roasted mockingbird!
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Though spring is inexorably yielding to summer, local asparagus is still available at the farmstands of my Greenmarket, and Tom and I are still happily consuming it. There’s often a bouquet of asparagus spears in a glass in my refrigerator, like a vase of flowers in bud – which, of course, is exactly what they are.

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I took some of my latest bunch to use in a pasta dish: Maccheroncini alla Saffi, from Marcella Hazan’s More Classic Italian Cooking. It’s a book I’ve had and enjoyed for decades, but I couldn’t remember ever making this recipe for small macaroni with asparagus, ham, and cream. The combination seemed classic, almost familiar: Surely I’ve eaten something like this before. Well, let’s see how this particular version comes out.

Scaling it down for two servings, I started by boiling half a pound of asparagus spears until just tender.
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When they were done and drained, I cut them into short lengths, cut two ounces of boiled ham into small strips, and measured out half a cup of heavy cream. Those were essentially all that was needed for the sauce, which was to come together while the pasta was cooking. So I set them aside until dinner time approached.

Then I dropped six ounces of penne into boiling salted water, melted a tablespoon of butter in the asparagus’s cooking pan, put in the asparagus pieces just long enough to turn them in the butter, added the ham, stirred in the cream, and cooked for about a minute. When the penne were al dente, I drained them and tossed them in the pan with the sauce, off heat.
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For our individual servings we showered on lots of freshly grated parmigiano and freshly ground black pepper. Between the cheese and the ham, no additional salt was needed.
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It was an attractive dish, and pleasant enough to eat. But mildly disappointing. While the asparagus, the ham, the cheese, the cream, and the pasta were all good tastes in themselves, they didn’t do anything for each other: not in the pan, not in the bowl, and not on the palate. A synthesis of flavors in a dish is important to me; if the whole isn’t greater than the sum of its parts, I can’t fall in love with a recipe.

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