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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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Summer is officially here at last! One happy concomitant of that is the increasing abundance of local fruits and vegetables at my Greenmarket. We’d invited a pair of friends to a dinner to celebrate the season, and when I did the shopping for it, a few days ahead, I went way overboard on my purchases: inescapable rapture of the season.

Not everything shown here was for that one meal, but it all looked so good I couldn’t resist. And good it all was, too.

 

Our Italian-themed dinner party began simply, with a few Castelvetrano olives, cheddar cheese sticks (homemade), and cubes of country terrine (not homemade) to go with glasses of aperitif wine in the living room.

 

At the dinner table, we started with that quintessential summer antipasto, prosciutto and melon. It was pushing the season, but I had managed to find a single cantaloupe in the grocery store’s bin that actually smelled like a melon. Its texture was a little too stiff for full ripeness, but the flavor was right.

 

We went on to a primo of risi e bisi, another seasonal classic. This Venetian dish of rice and peas is a close relative of risotto. My version, from Tom’s and my cookbook The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, includes pancetta in addition to the usual onion, parsley, broth, butter, and parmesan cheese. Quite a substantial dish, and just lovely with young, sweet English peas.

 

Our secondo, also from that cookbook, featured a dish we call Summertime Lamb Stew. It’s lamb lightly braised with tomatoes, pancetta, and chopped aromatic vegetables. Normally it uses fresh plum tomatoes, but in June all we get are greenhouse-grown, so we made it with canned San Marzanos. Sautéed early zucchini and spring onions, lightly scented with mint, made fresh, flavorful companions to the lamb.

 

After a cheese course (which I failed to photograph), we finished with a dessert of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries in grappa – a recipe from Tom’s and my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana – and hazelnut biscotti baked and brought to us by our guest Joan.

This was as light and refreshing as you can imagine – a perfect palate cleanser of a dessert.

 

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the array of bottles that Tom chose from his wine closet to accompany the meal. Here they are at the end of the evening:

They were:

  • 2015 Paumanok (Long Island) Festival Chardonnay as aperitifs
  • 2016 Abbazia di Novacella Gruner Veltliner with the prosciutto and melon
  • 2016 Pra Soave Classico Otto with the risi e bisi
  • 2001 Tor Calvano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano with the lamb
  • 2004 Villa Cafaggio Chianti Classico Riserva with the cheese
  • 2011 Dogliatti Moscato d’Asti with dessert

I hasten to point out that the four of us did not finish all six wines that evening. In fact, we didn’t finish any of them – just enjoyed the pleasure of tasting the differences from one to the next with each course.  They were still fine the next day, as Tom and I feasted on the leftovers.

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The occasional days of unseasonably hot weather we’ve experienced lately have activated my craving for full-summer vegetables. Of course there are no local ones yet, nor will there be for weeks and weeks. Nevertheless, I just had to eat something with eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes. I settled on a suitably summery dish of Spaghetti alla Siracusana, a Sicilian recipe from my first cookbook, La Tavola Italiana.
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I bought the firmest eggplant and crispest Bell pepper I could find and opened a can of imported San Marzano tomatoes. The seasonings were capers, anchovy, garlic, and parsley (a substitute for fresh basil), along with generous quantities of olive oil and grated pecorino romano cheese.
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Once the ingredients were prepared, making the sauce was a breeze. I sautéed the diced eggplant, whole garlic clove and chopped anchovy in olive oil for about 7 minutes. I stirred in the pepper strips, chopped tomato, capers, and parsley; covered the pan; and simmered, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the peppers were tender. It seemed a bit dry toward the end, so I added a little water.
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I took out the garlic, added salt and generous grindings of black pepper, and set the sauce aside until we were ready to eat. When the spaghetti was cooked, I dressed it with the reheated sauce and half the pecorino. The grated cheese disappeared right into the sauce.
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As you can see, the pasta wasn’t heavily coated with sauce. It’s not supposed to be. The tomato doesn’t turn into a puree but remains in soft little pieces, as do the eggplant and peppers, adding their textures to each forkful. The olive oil provides all the moisture the dish requires. The rest of the grated cheese went to the dinner table, for each person to add as desired.
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This was an enjoyable pasta, with sweet vegetable flavors and mild nuttiness from the cheese – but sadly, only a ghost of what Spaghetti alla Siracusana can be with fully ripe, newly picked eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. Good enough to satisfy my pre-season craving, it was an object lesson in why dishes one gets in Italy are often so much more luscious and vibrant than their counterparts in the US. So it wasn’t all I’d hoped for — but it had to do, as the song says, until the real thing comes along.

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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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Three Fennel Recipes

I keep forgetting what a versatile vegetable fennel is. I tend to think of it as raw spears nibbled to clean the palate between the main course and the cheese – a position it occupies admirably. But cooked fennel is also an excellent companion to many fish and meat dishes – a fact of which I was reminded recently when turning the pages of Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook.

There I found three recipes for fennel: one roasted, one braised, and one baked. I thought it would be interesting to make them all in a short time, to see how the differences would affect the results.

A bulb of fennel with its long feathery shoots can be a very pretty thing, but on the day I wanted to try the first recipe, the ones in local stores were looking fairly ratty. But fennel is a sturdy vegetable, which doesn’t seem to suffer much from age and handling. A useful characteristic!

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Roasted Fennel with Potatoes and Garlic

Michele’s headnote for this recipe begins “Every time I prepare this, I wish I had made more. Everybody loves it, and it disappears fast.” Now, that’s a lot for a simple dish to live up to, so I was slightly skeptical. We’d see about it.

My faithful knife man cut half of that big fennel bulb into ½-inch slices (I saved the rest for the next recipe), and he also cut a ½-pound Yukon gold potato into ¼-inch slices. I spread them all on an olive-oiled baking pan, brushed them with more oil, and added salt and pepper.
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The pan went into a 425° oven for 20 minutes, after which I took it out, turned over the vegetables, sprinkled on a minced garlic clove, and roasted for 10 more minutes, when the recipe said they’d be tender and browned. Tender they definitely were, but not even remotely as brown and handsome as the book’s photograph showed.
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I wonder if my oven is running too cool. Still, it was dinner time, so out they came. And you know what? They were scrumptious. We both loved them, they disappeared fast, and I wished I had made more.

 

Golden Braised Fennel

A few days later I made the second recipe, which as almost as effortless as the first. The second half of that big fennel bulb, also in ½-inch slices, went into a sauté pan with melted butter.
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I sauteed the pieces for four minutes on each side, until they were just beginning to brown, then poured on a little water, added salt and pepper, covered the pan, and cooked it very gently for 20 minutes. About half-way through, I checked and added a little more water to keep the fennel from frying. Then I sprinkled on two tablespoons of grated parmigiano, covered the pan again, and cooked for another minute, until the cheese melted in.
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This was also a good dish, simple and homey. It tasted mostly of pure fennel – vegetal and lightly liquoricey. It was meltingly soft from the moist cooking, with just a hint of richness from the cheese.

 

Creamy Fennel Gratin

This recipe’s headnote calls it one of Michele’s favorite ways to eat fennel. It’s more elaborate than the others but not at all difficult or time-consuming to make. I was able to get a better-looking bulb of fennel for it than I had for the other recipes. (Too bad I had no use for the attractive feathery fronds!)

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The fennel was to be cut in ½-inch thick wedges and parboiled until almost tender. My wedges came out rather thicker than that, so they took 10 minutes, not the suggested 5.
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Drained, sprayed with cold water, and patted dry, the wedges went into a buttered baking dish; were topped with butter bits, heavy cream, freshly ground black pepper, and grated parmigiano; and baked for 20 minutes at 400°.
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The fennel wedges absorbed almost all the cream, making them plump, lush, and velvety. The light crust of the butter-browned cheese was a good textural contrast. I think this would be an excellent dish to serve at a dinner party, alongside a broiled or roasted meat or chicken.

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Three recipes, all tasting deliciously of fennel, but each sufficiently different to occupy separate flavor and utility niches: Nice!

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Earlier this month Tom came home from a sojourn in Naples with a palate primed for ricotta. He’d been there for “Campania Stories,” an annual five-day event showcasing the wines of the region. Several of the meals provided for the attending journalists had included luscious fresh buffalo- or sheep-milk ricotta, and he longed for more of it.

I was happy to indulge him. Fortunately, we can get good fresh ricotta here now, and though it’s usually from cows’ milk, it’s vastly better than commercial brands filled with stabilizers and preservatives. I promptly acquired some.
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While the ricotta was at its freshest, we had it first in an antipasto: on each plate a big scoop of ricotta, paper-thin slices of felino salame, halved grape tomatoes dressed with salt, pepper, oregano, and olive oil, and a few fennel-flavored taralli. This reproduced what had been the ubiquitous Neapolitan antipasto during Tom’s trip, and we both reveled in its flavors – an appetizer in the truest sense.
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Our second use of the ricotta was in a pasta recipe from our own cookbook La Tavola Italiana: Maccheroni with Ricotta and Tomato Sauce. It’s a breeze to make – the simplicity highlights the ricotta itself, so the freshest, most flavorful ricotta is essential.

I opened a jar of my homemade tomato sauce and heated it up. I cooked the pasta, dressed it lightly with the sauce, then tossed in ricotta (brought to room temperature) and mixed all together well. Contrary to what one might expect, the ricotta lightened the dish and made it surprisingly fresh – not the effect that cheese usually has on pasta.
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There was still enough ricotta left to use in a dessert on another day. Also in La Tavola Italiana is a recipe for a Ricotta and Strawberry Parfait. The ricotta is whipped or beaten until smooth and flavored with sugar, egg yolk, and amaretto liqueur. The cream is heaped on berries that have been hulled, rinsed, and tossed with lemon juice. Slivered almonds go on top.

This day the stores’ strawberries didn’t look very good, so I bought big juicy blackberries instead. And for the liqueur, since I didn’t have any amaretto, I used kirsch. The dish was fine with those substitutions. Once again, the ricotta created a sense of lightness, beautifully complementing the berries and making the dessert a pleasing grace note to the meal that preceded it.
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Neapolitans, says Tom, know a thing or two about dining.

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The calendar may say Spring, but both the weather (snow in April!) and the fresh produce in markets still keep sullenly saying Winter. How I yearn for good hot-weather vegetables – especially those that can be made into antipasti for everyday dinners: ripe tomatoes! peppers and zucchini and eggplants from local farms! But they won’t be here for many weeks yet. Casting about for something to tempt our palates, I came upon a recipe in La Tavola Italiana, my own first cookbook, for a tortino di mozzarella; a recipe that I hadn’t made in a few years. Why not now?

In English, “torte” usually means an elaborate layered cake, but in Italy a torta can be a sweet or savory pastry. The diminutive tortino suggests a short-cut version of the breed. This mozzarella torte is a simple baked bread-and-cheese affair, but it really sings if you use excellent fresh mozzarella and good firm bread. Usually I make it with Italian-style bread (as long as the slices aren’t too full of air holes), but I’d just baked a batch of my favorite Joy of Cooking White Bread Plus, so I decided to try that for a change. I also had a large ball of buffalo mozzarella in the refrigerator, which is always a treat.
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The other ingredients are egg yolk, milk, anchovy fillets, fennel seeds, and grated parmigiano – all things I typically have on hand. Here’s the prep work for two portions:

  • Trimming the crusts off four slices of bread and laying them snugly in a buttered baking dish
  • Pureeing four chopped anchovy filets, an egg yolk, and ¼ cup of milk in my mini-food processor
  • Cutting four thick slices of mozzarella
  • Measuring out ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds and 1½ tablespoons of grated parmigiano.
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As dinner time approached, I finished making up the tortino while the oven preheated. The first step was to spoon the egg-milk-anchovy sauce over the bread, letting it absorb all the liquid. Then, to top each slice of bread with a slice of mozzarella. Finally, sprinkle on the fennel seeds and the grated cheese.  No intricacies: a very straightforward procedure.
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The dish went into a 400° oven for 20 minutes, until the cheese was bubbling and just starting to brown on top. Then it had to sit for 5 minutes before serving, so the molten cheese wouldn’t scald our mouths.
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The look and smell of the tortino were very appetizing (which was the point, of course). It tasted rather like a good mozzarella in carrozza but with additional flavor fillips from the fennel seeds and anchovy. A very satisfying cold-weather antipasto that I’ve been ignoring for too long; must make it again soon!

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