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Lamb stew is typically a slam-dunk for me: I brown chunks of lamb in a big pot; throw in cut-up onions, carrots, potatoes, and green beans; add broth, salt, and pepper: and cook until done. Good, solid food, but more than a little predictable.

Recently I was led to an interestingly different sort of lamb stew by a chance discovery in my pantry. Way in the back of a shelf I found a small bag holding a pair of dried ñora peppers.
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Cute little things, aren’t they? Turns out I’d bought some for use in a Spanish recipe all of five years ago and afterward completely forgot about the unused ones. Time to do something with them! The index of Penelope Casas’ La Cocina de Mamá sent me to a recipe for caldereta de cordero – a lamb stew in which these sweet (not hot) red peppers play a major role. It sounded simple and good. The only solid ingredients were boneless leg of lamb, potatoes, garlic, and the ñoras.
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To begin, I cored and seeded the peppers and cooked them along with the whole garlic cloves in olive oil for just two minutes.
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I added the lamb pieces, salt and pepper, and sauteed until the meat was lightly browned.
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Then I covered the pot and – with no liquid in it at all – let it cook very gently for half an hour, letting the lamb imbue itself with the other flavors. At that point the ñoras and garlics had to be taken out, mashed to a paste, and stirred back into the pot, along with white wine and broth.
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Finally, in went the potatoes, to cook with the lamb and absorb its seasonings for another half hour.
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In her recipe headnote Casas said to serve a Moorish-style green salad with the stew. So, following her recipe for the salad dressing, I mashed cumin seeds, garlic, Spanish smoked paprika, and salt in a mortar, whisked in olive oil and wine vinegar, and tossed it all with lettuce.

The stew was very good, and very different from the kind of lamb stew I usually make. The ñoras had given warm, earthy, and almost fruity undertones to the meat, potatoes, and sauce. And the spicy dressing on crisp lettuce leaves made an excellent complement to the dish. For its tastiness and ease of preparation,  I can easily see adding this lamb stew to my repertoire.
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For all the years that I’ve owned Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain, I still can hardly turn that book’s pages without coming upon an intriguing recipe I haven’t made before. My most recent find was her Conejo al Pirineo: a dish of rabbit braised in white wine with herbs, almonds, and pine nuts. That combination seemed inspired.

I hadn’t eaten any rabbit since my trip to Malta last fall, and hadn’t cooked a rabbit at home for several years. It was time to do so again. My butcher provided me with one of d’Artagnan’s “young fryer rabbits.” These are billed as being humanely raised, given no antibiotics or hormones, and fed a vegetarian diet of sweet alfalfa, oats, wheat, and barley. All that sounds as if it should produce a healthy and tasty little Thumper.

On opening its package, I was surprised by how large the rabbit was. Tailbone to chest, it was 16 inches long, and it weighed more than 3 pounds – more Brer Rabbit than Thumper.
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Also surprising was that, despite the reputed leanness of its meat, my rabbit had quite a lot of fat on it, clumped in a number of places. Evidently not a speedy Energizer bunny, this one. I trimmed it all off and cut the rabbit into serving pieces.
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Another attractive aspect of Casas’s recipe: The cooking is extremely simple. To start I floured and browned the rabbit pieces in olive oil, strewed on a lot of coarsely chopped onion, and cooked uncovered until the onion wilted.
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Next I added white wine, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, salt, pepper, minced garlic, two tablespoons of pine nuts, and a quarter cup of slivered blanched almonds.
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Covered, the rabbit and its seasonings simmered along for two hours. I turned the pieces occasionally and kept an eye on the liquid level. No more liquid was needed. The meat stayed very firm until nearly the end, then became extremely tender, ready to fall right off the bones.
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The wonderful aroma that had filled the kitchen all through the cooking time had given Tom and me great expectations for when we sat to the dinner table. Alas, they were not fulfilled. The sauce was indeed delicious, but the rabbit itself was dryish and almost tasteless. It could have been supermarket chicken. Maybe I should have left on the fat?
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Belatedly, I remembered that something similar had happened the previous time I’d cooked a d’Artagnan rabbit. I think this has to be the last time I do. The best free-range chickens cost considerably less than d’Artagnan gets for its rabbits.

We didn’t eat very much of the meat, despite the goodness of the sauce. That left me with a lot of leftovers, which I couldn’t bear to discard. So I put them in the refrigerator, and a few days later I made some into a risotto, coarsely chopping the meat and adding minced onion to the initial sauteeing of the rice. There, the small pieces of rabbit in sauce actually tasted better than they had the first time around.
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The rest of the leftover boned-out rabbit went into my freezer, some of which I’m planning to try using for mayonnaise-y rabbit salad sandwiches. And because that sauce was so good, I definitely want to make the recipe again one day using a flavorful free-range chicken.

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It’s always a happy surprise when new recipes turn out better than I’d expected. The above homey-looking dinner plate holds two excellent dishes from Penelope Casas’s Foods and Wines of Spain. This is the book that first introduced me to Spanish cooking and the one I most often rely on. It has never let me down, and I still continue to discover good new things in it.

This time I was initially struck by a recipe called Higado con Pimientos, which had an uncommon pairing of calf’s liver and green peppers. Liver and onions is a classic combination, but I’d never seen green peppers used in a dish with liver. Casas also recommended a potato dish, Patatas Picantes, as an accompaniment. Curiosity led me to try them.

The ingredients for two portions of both recipes were easily assembled: liver, sliced Bell peppers, sliced onions, minced garlic, a potato parboiled and sliced, and a few condiments.
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The first things to be cooked were the peppers and onions. We have peppers and onions often, but I do them in the Italian manner, which is to say together in one pan. For this dish they were done separately: first the onions, sautéed in olive oil and removed to a dish; then the peppers, briefly sauteed in the same pan, then covered, fully cooked, and removed to the dish. Finally the liver was quickly sauteed in the same pan, with a little more oil.
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Meanwhile, I’d been also cooking the boiled, sliced potatoes – sauteeing them in a different pan until lightly browned and then stirring in minced garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, and pimentòn dulce (Spanish smoked paprika).
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When the liver came out of its pan, I deglazed it with white wine, reduced the liquid, poured that over the liver, and put it in a serving dish in a turned-off oven to keep warm.

The final step was to reheat the peppers and onions in their original pan, season them with salt and pepper, spread them over the liver, and serve.
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These were the simplest procedures, yet they had remarkably subtle effects. Sauteeing the onions and peppers separately, in the same oil, and then finishing them in the remnants of the liver oil and the deglazing sauce, made the vegetables quite different from Italian peppers and onions: they didn’t blend together but each stayed itself, with just overtones of the other components’ flavors. And the liver had taken on the same multi-flavor hints from the vegetables’ sauteeing oil and the deglazing sauce. I was very happily surprised by how the peppers’ natural acidity made them a wonderful foil for the sweetness of calves’ liver and the onions.

The potatoes – with crunchy edges and soft interiors – loved their zingy spices and made an excellent counterpoint to the gentle harmony of peppers, onions, and liver.

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Altogether, a very interesting pair of dishes and a very enjoyable simple meal.

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I should have been in Spain today.

For months, Tom and I had planned to spend this week in Madrid. Then came the government shutdown. Overstressed air traffic controllers (those who hadn’t called in sick) were working double shifts. TSA screening lines were lengthening. Airplane maintenance crews weren’t working. Flights were being delayed, rerouted, cancelled. Though the shutdown ended (for now), its consequences were still looming. With the addition of potential threats from this winter’s polar vortex, it just seemed that too many things could go wrong with this trip. We’d go to Spain another time.

So here I was at home, thinking of the wonderful Spanish food I’m missing. What else could I do but put together a fine dinner from my Spanish cookbooks as a consolation prize?

For the centerpiece of my dinner menu I chose Lomito de cordero relleno de hongos: a roasted rack of lamb stuffed with mushrooms and scallions, from Penelope Casas’s La Cocina de Mama. The book’s picture of the dish was enticing:

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Happily, I had a small lamb rack in the freezer, just the right size to serve two. When it was defrosted, Tom carefully cut slits in the meat so that when the chops were cut apart each would have a layer of stuffing in the middle.
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He also minced ¾ cup of mushrooms and ¼ cup of scallions for me for the stuffing. I sauteed them in olive oil until the mushrooms were softened; salted and peppered them; poured on 2 tablespoons of Madeira, and cooked until it evaporated. (The recipe actually wanted a sweet sherry, but I had an open bottle of Madeira, which was close enough.)

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I stuffed that filling into the slits in the lamb rack, put it in an oiled baking pan, sprinkled on salt, pepper, and dried thyme, and drizzled olive oil over the meat.
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Meanwhile I was also making two easy vegetable dishes to accompany the meat. These were zarrangolo murciano – zucchini stewed with onion – a recipe from Teresa Barrenechea’s book The Cuisines of Spain, and patatas pobres – poor man’s potatoes – from Penelope Casas’s first cookbook, The Foods and Wines of Spain.

The zucchini dish needed two saute pans: one for slowly softening minced onions and garlic in olive oil, the other for cooking diced zucchini, also in olive oil, until it had rendered up its liquid. That done, the recipe called for draining the zucchini, transferring it to the onion pan, salting, peppering, and cooking everything together for just five minutes. The separate cooking allowed each vegetable to retain its own character, while the final mixing just gently blended the flavors.

The potatoes, sliced very thin, also simmered in olive oil, in a covered pan, being turned often enough to keep them from caking together. I turned up the flame at the end to brown them lightly, then tossed them with minced garlic and parsley. (But I forgot to photograph them: my bad.)

Now back to the lamb. After the stuffed rack had 15 minutes in a 400° oven, I poured a little white wine and lemon juice into the pan and roasted for 10 more minutes. That was all the cooking it needed. I was pleased to see that it came out looking not totally unlike the book’s picture.
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The chops and their stuffing were heavenly together, in both aroma and taste. The meat was still rare enough to please two serious carnivores, and the two vegetables made good flavor contributions, with a lightly sweet allium presence knitting the components together. This combination of recipes made a harmonious plate, hearty and satisfying, but with elegance and complexity.
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Tom gave us a very good Spanish wine from his wine closet – a 12-year-old Prado Enea grand reserve Rioja from Muga – to drink with the meal. It made an excellent companion to the lamb, being elegant and complex in itself, even though El Exigente would have wished it ten years older.

Finally, to complete our consolation-for-Spain meal, after coffee and clean-up we poured snifters of 1866 Gran Reserva Brandy. We discovered this wonderfully intense, aromatic after-dinner drink on a trip to Spain four years ago and brought back a bottle, which we’ve been doling out for special occasions ever since. It isn’t sold in the USA, and the shipping cost from Spain is prohibitive. We’d been counting on buying at least two more bottles in Madrid this week. Alas, it wasn’t to be. One more reason to reschedule that trip!
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It’s being a good year for many local summer vegetables: tomatoes, corn, peppers, and onions. The small early-season onions at my greenmarket were especially mild, moist, and sweet. As they grew bigger, they lost some of that fresh youthful charm, and by now the onions being sold are mostly “cured,” having the paper-thin dry skins of year-round store onions. But one greenmarket stand is still offering nearly fresh small ones.

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My original intention for the box I bought this week was to make a batch of the Italian sweet-and-sour preparation cipolline in agrodolce. But as I browsed recipes ranging from very simple to quite elaborate, none caught my fancy. So I turned from my Italian cookbooks to my Spanish ones. In Penelope Casas’ Tapas I found a recipe called cebollas in adobo, which instantly appealed. Its slightly sweet marinade was unlike any adobo I’d seen before and looked to be very tasty.

Tiny onions are often the devil to peel, but the ones I took to make up the recipe’s ½ pound behaved like angels. A brief dip in boiling water, removal of the root and stem tips, and the delicate skins slid right off, smoothly and evenly.
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To start the cooked marinade I needed small amounts of chopped tomato, onion, garlic, and parsley, plus a bay leaf, some basil, and dried thyme.
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After a brief sauté of the onion, garlic, and tomato, I added the herbs, salt, pepper, and a little water, covered the pan, and simmered for 20 minutes.
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Then I put the onions in a small saucepan with the tomato mixture, 1½ tablespoons of olive oil, ¼ cup of my own red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of raisins, 1 tablespoon of sugar, a little more thyme, basil, salt, and pepper, and another ½ cup of water.
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All this was to simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. By then, my kitchen was scented with the zesty marinade reduction, but my onions still weren’t quite fully tender. They took another 15 minutes of gentle tending, along with a tad more water to keep the sauce from scorching.
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They looked very tempting, just as they were, but the recipe said to cool and refrigerate them, so I didn’t even sneak a taste. Besides, the recipe also said they’d go well with any other sauceless tapa, so I needed time to prepare a companion for them.

From a recipe in the same Casas book I made a tortilla of potato, chorizo, ham, and peas.
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This was also to be served at room temperature, so it was evening when we finally sat to the two tapas.
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It was a good combination, as well balanced as were the flavors of the onion dish itself. That was neither strikingly sweet nor strongly sour, but a pleasing blend of flavors, the lightly enhanced sweetness of the onions counterpointed by the acidity of vinegar and tomato. The tortilla was also very tasty, with its own counterpoint of smoky ham and chorizo poised against the sweet young peas and egg, and with a texture just firm enough to welcome a little moistening with the onions’ excellent adobo. Both tapas went very well with a bottle of 2011 Consejo de la Alta Rioja, highlighting the affinity a region’s dishes always show for the kind of wines they grew up with.

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Caramelized Torrijas

All of three years ago, on my return from a trip to Spain, a post that I wrote here about many of the foods I enjoyed there mentioned a dessert called a torrija. Entirely new to me, it seemed to be a sort of structured-chunk-of-bread pudding with a crunchy crème brûlée topping – quite delicious. Here’s the picture I took of it:

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Eager to try making it at home, I began looking for recipes. There were two in my Spanish cookbooks, and I found others on the internet, but they were all essentially French toast: bread slices dipped in a thin custard, some also in beaten egg, and fried to thorough brownness in oil or butter. It was clear from my photo that the one I had in Spain hadn’t been done that way.

The soft white sides of that torrija made me think it couldn’t have been fried at all, so when I attempted to recreate the dish I baked it and ran it under the broiler with a brown sugar topping. Never mind the details; it didn’t work. I never got around to trying again.

But I couldn’t get that torrija out of my mind. Recently I had an idea about it: I searched for the name on Google Images. Among the hundreds of photos that came up, a few looked something like the one I had in Spain. Pursuing those to their sources, I learned that there are two kinds of torrijas. “Mine” was the kind called caramelezada, and it’s cooked in a way different from the French-toast type. Eureka!

But not so fast: the underlying recipes were all in Spanish. The little of that language that I know wasn’t enough to fully grasp the techniques, and Google’s translations were ludicrous. So I had to improvise somewhat. Here, by the way, is the recipe I relied on, to the extent that I could, for my experiment.

Making just a fraction of the recipe’s quantities, I stirred together milk, heavy cream, beaten egg and sugar. I put two thick slabs of my own white bread into this uncooked batter and left them to absorb it, which turned out not to be as simple as it sounds.

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The recipe said they’d need 45 minutes on each side. That seemed like a lot, but fortunately I’d started early enough in the day, because it did take that long, even with occasional pour-overs to expedite the process.

Then came the actual cooking. This was where the Spanish instructions weren’t clear to me. Here’s exactly how Google translated the final words of the recipe:

We go with the marking of the French toast. We light the pan with butter. We pour plenty of sugar on the top and put them in the pan for a while until the sugar is roasted (but be careful not to burn). We do the same for the other side and put them on the plates.

Was I supposed to put the sugar on top of the butter, which was just referred to, or on “them,” the breads? How much sugar is “plenty”? It would also have helped to know how high a heat to use and how long it might take for the sugar to “roast.” ¿Quién sabe?

First I tried putting the sugar in the pan and laying the bread slice on top of the sugar.

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The butter bubbled along merrily, but when I tilted up the bread to see how it was browning, I couldn’t see any effect from the sugar. So just before turning the bread, I put some sugar on top of it.
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The butter was getting pretty dark, and I worried that it, not the sugar, might burn. When the first chunk of bread was well browned, I took it out of the pan. No sugar had caramelized on it, but it was clearly cooked enough. For the second chunk, I added more fresh butter and put sugar both in the pan and on each side of the bread.
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I got basically the same result: The sugar just dissolved, and the bread simply browned in the sweetened butter. I gave up and called them done.
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They weren’t a disaster. Their texture and flavor were very like the torrija I had in Spain. But I’m really sorry I couldn’t get the crunchy topping. Not just for the pleasant mouthfeel: Caramelizing sugar cuts some of its sweetness, and the amounts of sugar each torrija absorbed in my futile attempts to caramelize it gave it a far more intense sweetness than I’d have liked.
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A little blowtorch would probably have done the job, but I don’t own one. Beloved Spouse is voting for a few minutes under the broiler, but that didn’t work when I made my first torrija try. If anyone who reads this post has had success with torrijas caramelezadas, I’d be grateful for any tips you’d care to provide. In English, please: My Spanish is clearly inadequate for this dish.

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Octopus, which used to be a culinary curiosity in this country, is increasingly coming into the mainstream of locally available seafood. Three different fish stores within half a mile of my home now carry it regularly, both raw and cooked. I’ve had very good results from a few Spanish and Italian octopus recipes and am always interested in new ones. The two latest ones I’ve made are from Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain, by Penelope Casas.

My copy is an attractive large paperback, with more than 300 recipes. Those I’d tried had all been successful, so when I came across two for octopus tapas that I hadn’t much noticed before, I read them with interest. Both have you start by simply boiling the octopus, so for the sake of convenience I bought a pound of cooked tentacles – enough for half recipes of each tapa.
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The first dish I made was Pulpo con Patatas, Octopus with Red Peppers and Potatoes. The full recipe is said to serve four, but I could see that even the half would be plenty for a main dish for the two of us. Along with the cut-up octopus, it calls for chopped onion, cubed potatoes, Spanish smoked paprika, skinned and chopped sweet red pepper, minced garlic, and bay leaf.
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Once Beloved Spouse had done all the knife work for me, the rest of the preparation was easy enough. Boil the potatoes until tender, drain them, and save some of the cooking water. In an ovenproof dish sauté the onion, pepper, and garlic in olive oil. Add the octopus and sauté for a minute or two. Stir in the paprika, bay leaf, potatoes, salt, and a little of the potato water.
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Bring the liquid to a boil and bake the dish, uncovered, in a moderate oven for 15 minutes. It came out of the oven looking much as it did going in, but the flavors had blended a bit and intensified each other, making a rich, filling combination.
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This was a good, satisfying dish, but I don’t see it as becoming a regular in my repertoire: Though billed as a tapa, it would have been very heavy as an appetizer; and as a main course it wasn’t quite as satisfying as a few other octopus dishes I’ve made – here and here.  For us, those are the upper echelon of octopus cookery.

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A few days later, I made the second tapa recipe, Pulpo a la Leonesa, Octopus Stewed in Onions. With my pre-cooked octopus, it was the essence of simplicity: aside from the eponymous octopus and onions, the only ingredients are olive oil, vinegar, wine, and salt.

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I softened the onions in the oil, covered the pan and cooked them gently until tender. I added one-inch pieces of octopus, salt, and tiny amounts of white wine and my own red wine vinegar; cooked it all gently, covered, for 15 minutes; and served with slices of crusty bread.
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This dish wasn’t quite as successful as the previous one. Mostly my fault, I think: The recipe strongly recommended using tiny octopi, which would have benefited more from the condiments than my larger chunks did. Also, there was a little too much sameness to each dense, rich mouthful. It would have shown better in an assortment of several tapas, with varying textures and flavors to contrast, than it did as our only appetizer. The onions were extremely tasty, though – we’d have liked more of them.

The next time I get an urge for octopus, I might buy the tiny ones, cook them myself, and try this dish again to see what difference they make. And I’ll probably increase the quantity of onions.

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