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The last week of winter sent us some nasty weather as a parting gift. It has been a peculiar winter hereabouts: many days’ temperature getting up into the 60s, followed by colder spells with lots of wind, then unseasonal warmth again. It had hardly snowed at all until a late nor’easter barreled toward us, threatening Manhattan with 15” or more of snow and wild blustery winds. It was definitely a day to stay home and make soup.

I remembered there were some soup recipes in Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook that I’d been meaning to try for a long time, so I pulled my copy off the shelf and started looking through it. Aha: Celery Rice Soup – the very thing! Beloved Spouse is always eager for dishes involving cooked celery, and I had just bought a large fresh head of it.
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With that incentive, he was more than happy to chop all the vegetables for the soup. He began working on the four biggest stalks of celery, then moved on to a big onion and two potatoes, while I measured out ½ cup of white rice, grated ½ cup of parmigiano, and defrosted 6 cups of homemade broth and 2 tablespoons of minced parsley.
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The cooking process was simple. In a soup pot I briefly softened the onion in olive oil, stirred in the celery and potatoes to coat them with the oil, poured in the broth, and simmered everything for 20 minutes. Then I added the rice and some salt and pepper, simmered it for another 20 minutes, and stirred in the parsley. The rice had absorbed a lot of the liquid, making the soup look almost like a vegetable stew.

For lunch that day we ate big bowls of it, topped with grated parmigiano. It was a perfect consolation for a mean, snowy, sleety day: hearty, homey, and comforting, with a mild and delicate flavor of celery.
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A few cold, windy days later I turned to another recipe from the same book: Pugliese-style Zucchini-Potato Soup. Its ingredients are similar in type but even fewer in number than the previous one’s: potatoes, zucchini, and spaghetti, with condiments of garlic, olive oil, and grated parmigiano.
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The cooking too is even simpler: Bring salted water to a boil, add cut-up potatoes and a minced clove of garlic, cook 10 minutes, until the potatoes are tender. Add cut-up zucchini and broken-up spaghetti; cook 10 more minutes, until the spaghetti is al dente. Stir in olive oil, black pepper, and grated cheese. Serve, passing more olive oil at the table.
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This minimal peasant soup was, once again, just what the weather needed. The final dressing of cheese and olive oil completed and enhanced its simple basic flavors. Beloved Spouse said it struck him as a grandmother’s soup. My only complaint was for the blandness of the out-of-season zucchini: They didn’t contribute all they should have to the mixture.

But the vernal equinox is past, Earth’s northern hemisphere is tilting toward the sun, the days are getting longer, and soon the growing season will be upon us. And if winter delivers any Parthian shots to us, I can retaliate with the rest of my two soups.
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There were Maine shrimp in my fish market last week! They’d been gone for three years, since commercial shrimp fishing in the Gulf of Maine was closed down after a disastrous 2013 season. The moratorium is still in effect, but thanks to an increase in the amounts shrimpers may take for scientific sampling purposes – and then sell – this year, small quantities of these delicious little critters are getting to our area. Hooray!
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maine-shrimp-in-shell

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These bright red shrimps are really tiny. That’s half a pound of them, raw in their shells. Most often I just drop them in boiling water for one minute, then cool, shell, chill, and serve them with a homemade cocktail sauce. They make a lovely shrimp cocktail. This time I was going to use them in a pasta dish, so I shelled them raw. Stripped of their long heads, shells, tails, legs, feelers, and roe, they came to a mere 3½ ounces. Wish I’d bought more!
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maine-shrimp-shelled

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Even though the shrimps were going to combine with pasta, I wanted to keep everything simple: Maine shrimps should shine through their accompaniments. So I chose for the sauce of my pasta dish a basic agli’e olio (It’s not spelled that way, I know; but in this Neapolitan-American household, it’s pronounced that way), the making of which is Beloved Spouse’s specialty. So while our spaghetti was cooking, he minced some cloves of garlic, seethed them in olive oil without allowing them to color, and tossed in chopped parsley, salt, and a pinch of crushed red pepper.
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aglie-olio

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Moments before the spaghetti was done we added the shrimp to the saucepan and stirred them around until they just lost their translucence, about two minutes. All that remained to be done was drain the pasta, put it in bowls, and dress it with the shrimp and sauce.
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pasta-and-shrimp

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So simple, and so scrumptious! Delicate as Maine shrimp are, their sweetness and succulence contribute immensely to any dish they’re invited into. I hope there’ll be enough of them for me to invite into several more meals this winter, before their very short season is over.

For my next batch I’m thinking I might want to see how Maine shrimp would handle the spicy sauce of Galatoire’s Shrimp Remoulade. And if that works, maybe try giving Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison a Yankee twist by substituting Maine shrimp for crab. If there’s time enough, we shall see.

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Beloved Spouse was in Italy this past week for a wine writers’ event, so I was making dinners for one. For these occasions I tend to feed myself things that I like much better than he does – which helps keep both sides of the family happy.

This time I had a new recipe that would be perfect for such a meal: Lentil Salad fabrizia-lanzawith Mint and Orange Zest, from Fabrizia Lanza’s Coming Home to Sicily, which I remembered as a dish my friend Hope served at a dinner some months ago, and which I liked very much. However, since Beloved Spouse regards most salads with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, I hadn’t yet found an opportunity to make it at home. But now, for myself alone, I had my double–0 designation!

For six servings, the recipe calls for two cups of green – but not Le Puy – lentils. I had to do some online research to be certain of the kind I needed here. That was a variety known as Laired green lentils – which, as you can see here, are not very green at all.

package

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But they were the right kind, and apparently their color can vary quite a bit. For the half recipe I intended to make, I picked over one cup’s worth of them.
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laired-lentils

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I rinsed them, put them in a pot with two cups of water, and simmered them covered until they were tender. When they had cooled, I found they had quadrupled in volume, yielding far more than my lone self wanted to deal with. So I put half of the half recipe’s worth of lentils in the refrigerator for another use and dressed the rest with a quarter of the recipe’s condiment quantities.

The first one of those was fresh mint. For the whole recipe, that was to be the leaves from “a large bunch” of the herb. I had no idea what a Sicilian cook would consider a large bunch. I do wish recipe writers would give measured amounts of their ingredients! I bought the 25-gram package that was what my local market offered.

mint

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I chopped up about 3 tablespoons of leaves and mixed them into the 2 cups of lentils. The quantity looked about right in comparison to the book’s photo of the dish. (I should know by now not to trust food photography!) I also added a teaspoon of grated orange zest, ½ teaspoon of dried oregano, 1½ teaspoons of olive oil, 1½ teaspoons of lemon juice, and a generous sprinkling of sea salt.
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lentil-salad

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I’d dressed the salad in mid-afternoon, so the flavors would have time to blend, leaving it at room temperature. Come dinnertime, I served myself a meal that, while it looked appealing to me, would have brought no cheer to the man who normally sits across from me at the dinner table: broiled chicken thighs, plain broccoli rape (neither of which he likes much), and the lentil salad.
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dinner-plate

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Quickly I became glad he wasn’t sitting across from me that evening, because the salad was a big disappointment. The mint presence was much too strong, and I couldn’t detect the orange peel and oregano at all. I tried fishing out the visible bits of leaf, but the flavor had permeated the lentils. I don’t know what kind of mint this was; the package label didn’t say. But it was extremely sweet and pungent, as if the lentils had been dressed with melted peppermint candies.

Puzzled by why my dish turned so much less pleasing than Hope’s, I asked her what kind of mint she’d used. Lo and behold, her salad had not been from Lanza’s recipe! Yes, we’d discussed the book that evening, but her lentil salad came from Made in Spain by José Andrés. At the time I hadn’t asked what recipe she’d used, so when I much later found the one in Lanza’s book, I just made the assumption.

Subsequently, I looked up the Andrés recipe on the Web. Aside from the lentils themselves, there isn’t a single ingredient in common between the two recipes. The Spanish one contains shallots, chives, garlic, bay leaves, green and red peppers, and sherry vinegar – all things I like a lot more than I like mint. I may have found my use for those other two cups of cooked lentils.

So we live and learn. Or not.

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I like the Italian tradition of eating lentils on the first day of the new year. It’s supposed to bring good luck – and as the world seems to be heading, luck is going to be in great demand in 2017. Moreover, because they look a little like coins, lentils also signify prosperity. We can hope for that too.

lentils

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Most often, the centerpiece of our New Year’s Day dinner is a cotechino sausage on a bed of lentils, a classic dish that I’ve written about before here. We like to use an imported, fully cooked cotechino from Levoni, which has great depth of flavor and a wonderfully gelatinous character. And when we can get them, we use Castelluccio lentils – a special, small, golden brown variety from Umbria.

This year I decided to unbundle the traditional combination, using the cotechino in a small bollito misto for two and the lentils in a soup. I found a soup recipe that I liked in Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cooking. It’s simple; it’s made with reliably flavorful ingredients, and there wasn’t a single one of them that I didn’t already have in pantry or refrigerator. Here they all are (half a recipe’s worth):

ingredients

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To begin, you lightly brown chopped onion in olive oil and butter; add chopped carrots, celery, and pancetta; and sauté those for a few minutes. Next, stir in chopped canned Italian-style tomatoes with their juices.

soup-base

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That mixture simmers, uncovered, for 25 minutes. Then you add the lentils, stirring them around a bit to coat with the soup base. Then salt, pepper, and broth – in our case, Beloved Spouse’s best homemade broth. About 45 more minutes’ cooking, covered, and the soup is done.

A dab of butter and some grated parmigiano garnish each bowl.

lentil-soup

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It was a simple, satisfying soup. The lentils, so tasty in their own right, were gently enriched by the flavors of the other ingredients. A very pleasant prelude to our little new year’s bollito.

bollito

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Incidentally, this post marks the beginning of my eighth year of writing this blog. I’ve very much enjoyed doing it, and I’ve learned a lot about food and cooking. I hope my readers will continue to find my culinary adventures and excursions interesting. Buon Capodanno e buon appetito!

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A few times a year, I get an urge to try cooking pork tenderloin. This is strange, because in the past I’ve hardly ever achieved a successful dish with that cut of meat. I don’t know why; I’ve just assumed it was “not in my skill set,” as a work colleague of mine once said when he was asked to take on a task. But I keep trying, and this time I think I succeeded.

1000 Italian RecipesThe recipe I used was Balsamic-Glazed Pork Tenderloin with Arugula and Parmigiano, from Michele Sciolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes. I liked the look of it because it had enough other flavorings to be attractive but not so many as to turn the dish into a big production number. And it was extremely easy to prepare.

condimentsThe main – almost the only – effort it took was to stir together a glaze of minced garlic, balsamic vinegar, honey, salt, and black pepper, a combination of tastes that promised interesting results. I happened to have some very fine balsamic and a jar of good acacia honey to use for that.
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I laid the tenderloin in a snug baking dish, brushed the glaze over it, and roasted it in a very hot oven, pouring a little water into the dish after the first 15 minutes. The pork was ready after 20 more minutes, without any basting.
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tenderloin-cooked

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While the tenderloin rested in its pan for 10 more minutes, I tossed a bunch of baby arugula with a balsamic vinaigrette. Then I placed the meat on a platter for slicing, drizzled the pan juices over it, spread the arugula around it, and sprinkled grated parmigiano over the salad.

tenderloin-served

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(Actually, the recipe calls for making cheese shavings with a vegetable peeler, but I didn’t have a chunk of parmigiano available. The grated cheese was fine.)

The result was the excellent medley of flavors I’d hoped for. The meat was only gently imbued with the glaze, but it had created a very nice, light pan sauce. I love arugula even just plain, and dressed as it was here, it made a sparkling foil for the sweet, succulent pork.

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A pleasant dish I made this week was an adaptation of one of my own recipes in The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. I hadn’t deliberately planned to do it; it came about because I was looking for a way to enliven a pair of artichokes that had spent too much time off the stalk.

artichokes

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My recipe, Artichokes Stuffed with Tuna, Abruzzo-style, makes a hot antipasto, using four-ounce artichokes. Their petals need to be crisp enough to bend back, snap, and peel down, leaving only the tender parts of the flesh, so that with a little further trimming and removal of the chokes, the entire remaining vegetable is edible. Then their centers are filled with a tuna stuffing, and sort of pan-roasted on top of the stove with just a little water.

These rather elderly artichokes were twice that size and their petals far too limp to snap, so I had to treat them differently. I cut off the sharp tips of the petals, pulled off some of the skinny center ones, scraped out the chokes, and left the artichokes to soak in acidulated water for a while.

Then I mixed up the recipe’s stuffing:

tuna-stuffing

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It’s olive oil-packed tuna and some of its oil, chopped anchovy fillets, capers, chopped parsley, and a pressed clove of garlic. That went into the centers of the artichokes, and I snugged them into a lightly oiled heavy-bottomed pot, with half an inch of water at the bottom and a drizzle more of oil over the veg.
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in-the-pot

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The eight small artichokes of my full recipe take 45 minutes to cook, tightly covered. These two needed an hour and 10 minutes, but they behaved well: didn’t stick, didn’t slump, didn’t fry or dry out. When they were tender and I took them out of the pot, there was enough liquid left to boil down to nicely flavored olive oil to pour over them on the serving plates.
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served

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Unlike the small artichokes, which can be eaten neatly with knife and fork, these had to be eaten by pulling off the petals one by one and dabbing on some of the stuffing. That was a pretty messy process – one set of oily fingers for the petals, and one clean hand with a fork. And a paper towel nearby! But they were tasty; the flavors went very well together. The stuffing was especially good when you got down to the artichoke bottom. So, while this is not a version of the dish I would serve to company, it was OK for a casual family meal, and it certainly livened up those somewhat tired artichokes.
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down-to-the-bottom

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Roland Marandino, who blogs at Cooking from Books, did a post recently on how much neater and easier it is to cook sausages and peppers in the oven than in a sauté pan on top of the stove. That sounded to me like a brilliant idea, and I decided to try it, with a few alterations, for a casual dinner party a few nights ago. It was a great success.

For six people I used six individual pork ribs, six sweet Italian sausages, six hot Italian sausages, two very large chicken legs, two Spanish onions, and seven of the last of this season’s locally grown Bell peppers.
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ingredients

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Beloved Spouse did his usual expert knife work on the peppers and onions, and the rest was a slam-dunk. I oiled my biggest roasting pan, laid in all the meats and vegetables, salting and peppering as I went, and drizzled olive oil over the top.
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oven-ready

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Roland’s recipe, which was for a smaller quantity of food, said to keep the sausages in a single layer and roast at 400° for an hour. As you can see, mine was a deeply filled pan. I gave it an extra 10 minutes and stirred the mixture around a few times during the cooking. When the time was up I cut the chicken into smaller pieces and halved some of the sausages. I’d intended to transfer everything to my very largest platter, but since this was such a casual occasion I just served everyone straight from the roasting pan. No one minded.
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roasted

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I’m happy to say that all the meats and vegetables were fully cooked and very tasty. A nice crusty country loaf complemented the simple meats. Everyone ate well, and with the accompaniment of a magnum of 1997 Castello Banfi Poggio alle Mura Brunello, the customary good time was had by all. So thank you, Roland, for providing the idea!

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