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We celebrated Independence Day this year by having good friends over for an American dinner. This was a bit of a menu challenge, since my palate, my pantry, and my parties mostly tend toward Italian and French. But I dug into my recipe collection and came up with an all-American lineup, while Tom dug into his wine storage for American wines.

We started modestly in the living room with aperitifs of Gruet brut, a champagne-method sparkling wine from New Mexico, with cocktail peanuts, cheese straws, and pickled herring to nibble on. I made the cheese straws with New York State cheddar, and the little tidbits of herring in mustard sauce were from Russ & Daughters on Houston Street, one of Manhattan’s many noted immigrant success stories.
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At table, our first course was a New Orleans favorite, Crabmeat Maison as served in Galatoire’s restaurant. I’ve written here before about making this luscious preparation for Atlantic blue-claw crabmeat. This day it paired beautifully with a 2016 Chenin Blanc from Paumanok Vineyards on Long Island.
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From there we moved to a rolled rib roast of beautifully rare beef, sourced from Ottomanelli’s of Bleecker Street, one more noted Manhattan immigrant success. This delicious centerpiece was accompanied by picnic-style vegetables: first-of-the-summer corn on the cob, new potato salad (I’ve written here about this too), a colorful heirloom tomato salad; and an ever-reliable three-bean salad, with black beans, kidneys, and chickpeas. The corn, potatoes, and tomatoes were from local farmers at my greenmarket. Our wine was a fine 2010 Petite sirah from California’s Ridge Vineyards.
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Even our cheese board held only US cheeses: Leonora, a goat; Harbison, a soft-ripening cow; Grayson, another cow; and one called Simply Sheep. All but the Grayson were new to us, and all were very good. With them we drank another excellent Ridge wine: 2010 Geyserville. (Tom has written about all these wines in his blog.)
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We concluded with small strawberry shortcakes, that quintessentially American summer dessert. Again, I’ve written about this classic recipe from the American Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series. They were local strawberries, of course. This particular batch came out quite messy looking, but they tasted perfectly good.
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All that definitely made a Glorious Fourth dinner. For the final aspect of the patriotic theme, our evening’s music program was also all-American. The guests arrived to the tune of John Philip Sousa marches, and when they were all played, we listened to quiet jazz by Teddy Wilson, who, in Tom’s opinion, probably has the lightest touch of any jazz pianist ever.

Expressing patriotism is a tricky business these days, but culinary patriotism can win all available hearts, minds, and stomachs.

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Last week’s success with two simple strawberry desserts went to my head. Guess I should have known not to push my luck too far. But I’d found one more recipe that I wanted to try before the end of strawberry season. Somewhat more elaborate than the first two, this one, called Summer Pudding, is from Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts, a book that has previously given me several good things.

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The dish is essentially a cooked mixture of strawberries and blueberries in a lavishly fruit-soaked bread casing. It was to be prepared a day in advance, chilled, and served with whipped cream. We like all kinds of normal bread puddings at my house, so this seemed like a very interesting hot-weather version. I gathered the ingredients for an experimental half recipe’s worth.
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While the berries, sugar, and grated lemon peel simmered for 10 minutes in a small pot, I assembled the bread casing in a two-cup soufflé dish. The bread was a bakery pullman loaf, with a crumb rather flimsier than that of my usual homemade white bread, so I had to slice it thicker than I’d have liked.
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I strained the cooked berry mixture, saving all the not-quite-syrupy juices and using some to moisten the floor of the bread.
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The berries went into the case and were topped with another round of bread, which I dampened with a little more juice, being careful not to thoroughly soak the side bread pieces yet.
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Then I had to put a weight on the pudding, wrap it tightly in film, and refrigerate it for 24 hours. Happily, a search through my kitchen cabinets turned up just the right size mini-cocotte lid for the weighting.
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Next day, the pudding unmolded readily enough and accepted further doses of the reserved juices to fully color the casing. Standing alone, it didn’t look all that appealing.
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The individual servings, topped with vanilla-flavored whipped cream, were more attractive.
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However, I can’t say we liked the pudding much. The berry flavors were good, but the overall texture was not: It was essentially just a fruit compote on too much soggy bread. Also, the recipe’s prescribed amount of whipped cream was barely enough to offset the acidity of the fruit and juice. I understand this is intended as a minimal-cooking summer recipe, but we’d have been much happier having those berries in a normal bread pudding.

Well, you can’t win ‘em all. Two out of three’s not so bad.

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What joys there are in strawberries, the first fruits of summer! Fancy dishes: strawberry shortcake, strawberry ice cream, strawberry tarts. And plain ones: a bowl of berries with sugar and lemon juice, or with cream. The local strawberries have been going strong this season, leading me to try a few new-to-me preparations with them.

I found two fine simple ones in the Fruits volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. Each book in this series is an eclectic treasure trove of recipes, reprinted with permission, from everything from classic to all-but-forgotten sources. More than 100 are cited in this volume, for instance. I’d never heard of either of the sources for my two new recipes.

 

Strawberries with Vinegar

Vinegar: odd ingredient for a dessert, I thought. The more so because the recipe comes from a book called The Cuisine of Venice (authors Hedy Giusti-Lanham and Andrea Dodi) and I’d never found another Venetian dish like it. The recipe’s explanations intrigued me, starting with the odd first step in the simple procedure: Put unwashed strawberries in a bowl and pour on wine to cover. I did that, using a cup of white wine and a pint of berries, for a half recipe to serve two.
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After five minutes I was to pour off the wine and discard it: It was there only to wash the berries. The recipe said washing with water dilutes their taste and makes them watery – not a problem I’ve ever been aware of. Still, there was some wine in my refrigerator that had been open for several days already, so “wasting” wine that way wasn’t too painful.

For serving, I divided the berries over two little bowls and added a teaspoon of distilled white vinegar to each, plus a sprinkling of powdered sugar. The recipe assured me that I wouldn’t be able to taste the vinegar; it would be overpowered by the berries, and its acidity would enhance their flavor and increase their sweetness.
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And in fact, that was exactly the case. The berries were delicious. The cookies you see accompanying the bowls of this hitherto-unknown Venetian preparation are traditional “esse” cookies from the island of Burano, a souvenir of my recent Venice trip.

 

Strawberries in Liqueur

This recipe, originally published in the Dutch magazine Vrij Nederland, caught my eye because I happen to have all three of the liqueurs in the ingredient list – Armagnac, Curaçao, and kirsch. It’s another very simple preparation, and again I was halving the recipe to serve two.
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I hulled, washed (in water, this time!), and patted dry a pint of strawberries and mixed them in a bowl with half a tablespoon of sugar. Over them I poured a scant tablespoon of Armagnac and a scant tablespoon of Curaçao, then covered the bowl and refrigerated it for an hour..
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Next I whipped ¼ cup of heavy cream with about a teaspoon of sugar and added a scant tablespoon of kirsch. I gently folded that into the berries and returned the bowl to the refrigerator for another hour.

This was wonderful. When I transferred the berries to serving bowls, the liqueur had softened the cream into a luscious sauce, which coated the strawberries and blended yet another lovely, subtly spiced flavor to that of the chilled, fragrant fruit. Ambrosia!
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This dish goes into my repertory for as long as strawberry season and my supply of the three brandies lasts.

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My recent week in Venice sent me home with a major fruit and vegetable deficit. The many other culinary temptations there diverted me from my normal interest in fresh produce. Happily, the cure is at hand in my Greenmarket, where it seems that summer is finally on the way. I’ve been regaling myself with local strawberries, blueberries, English peas, flat green beans, spring onions, new potatoes, young zucchini, and even heirloom tomatoes (greenhouse-grown).

A good dish for the produce-hungry is a savory vegetable tart. It’s easy to make with any number of ingredient combinations. This week I made one using Greenmarket zucchini, tomatoes, and onions (the onions already roasted from the previous night’s dinner), supplemented with eggplant from my favorite sidewalk vegetable stand.

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For the tart shell I used pâte brisée, which I often keep on hand in the freezer. After rolling it out, I painted the bottom with Dijon mustard – grainy mustard this time, for a change from smooth.
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I sliced and sauteed one of the eggplants and two of the zucchini.
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While they cooled a little, I roughly chopped the onions and sliced and seeded the larger tomato.
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I spread those vegetables in the uncooked pastry shell, sprinkling each layer with salt, pepper, and herbes de Provence.
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The tart baked for 30 minutes in a 375º oven. (As you may notice below, at the last minute I’d decided to sprinkle a little grated parmigiano over it too.)
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You basically can’t go wrong with a tart like this. Use any nonsweet pastry dough. Add another lightly cooked vegetable – peppers are particularly good. Sprinkle on oregano, thyme, or parsley instead of provençal herbs. Beat an egg with a little tomato puree and pour that around the vegetables. Top the tart with a veil of grated Swiss cheese. Just about anything goes.
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Normally, I like wedges of the tart as a lunch dish or a dinner’s first course. This time, what with our Venice-induced vegetable hunger, it was our dinner’s main course. With no trouble at all, we ate the whole thing – and are looking forward to a summer of more.

Oh yes, lest I forget: The grainy mustard was a bit too sweet and forward, so it’s back to regular Dijon next time.

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As I mentioned in last week’s post, Tom and I had carefully chosen restaurants for the three dinners we’d be having in Lyon after our Rhône cruise. We wanted simple brasseries or bouchons devoted to traditional Lyonnaise cuisine. Our selection was somewhat limited by our days’ including a Sunday and a Monday, when many restaurants there are closed. But we did very well with the ones we found.

 

Brasserie Georges

Brasserie Georges, huge, bustling, and immoderately lively, has been an institution in Lyon since 1836. We discovered it on our first visit to the city in 2008 and have ever since remembered the fabulous first course of roasted marrow bones we ate there. So of course we both had them again this time around.

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The menu called the dish Os à moelle à la croque au sel de Guérande, pain grillé. We called it heaven. The prized crunchy sea salt of the Guerande area gave a special zest to the soft, lush marrow as it melted onto the warm toasted bread. But each portion was enormous: We would have been wiser to split a single order instead of gluttonously plowing through the two.

For our second courses, Tom had steak tartare of Charolais beef, expertly prepared at our table with the condiments of his choice and served with a green salad and fried potatoes. I had tête de veau – calf’s head – with ravigote sauce and steamed vegetables. Both were fine of their kind.
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Needing a break from the multiple-course menus we’d been eating on shipboard, we simply stopped there: Georges’ food was very good, but not quite as magical as memory had painted it. Nonetheless contentedly stuffed, we strolled home and finished our evening with cognacs from the bar at our hotel.

 

Le Petit Léon de Lyon

Though it still calls itself a bistro, Léon de Lyon has become a double restaurant: the original establishment, dating from 1904, now features elegant, upscale cuisine, while a small new adjacent space, dubbed Le Petit Léon de Lyon, offers simpler, traditional fare. The little place was perfect for us.

We both started with the house’s pâté en croûte.
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The thick slices of buttery pastry enclosed a filling made from foie gras, veal sweetbreads, and vin jaune, a sherry-like white wine from France’s Jura region. Not so simple at that! It was marvelous, and so filling we could almost have stopped right there.

But we didn’t. For the main course, we’d both ordered Lyon’s signature tripe dish, gras double à la lyonnaise. Here the Petit Léon surprised us: What we received wasn’t the typical version, where the tripe is essentially stewed in onions and wine, but instead was cooked in a sauce with quite a lot of tomato and then gratinéed for serving. Very good, but not what we were expecting.
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The gras double tripe, so different from the honeycomb tripe that is all we get in the US, was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, but so unutterably rich in its sauce that neither of us could finish our portion. The fresh green salad that came alongside made a welcome brisk counterpoint, but it could only help so far. Once again, we didn’t go on to cheese or dessert.

 

Brasserie Le Nord

In addition to the original Michelin three-star Paul Bocuse restaurant just north of Lyon, there are seven less glittering Paul Bocuse restaurants in the city itself, including four brasseries named for the cardinal points of the compass. Each of those has a different culinary emphasis. Le Nord is devoted to “les grands classiques de la Cuisine de Tradition Lyonnaise.” We dined there on our last night in Lyon.

Our meal was indeed classic, in both simplicity and excellence. We both started with fresh foie gras, among the best we’ve ever had.
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Served with it was a cooked condiment made (I was told) from red onion, apple, pineapple, and celery. It was fascinating – sweet but sharp, a wonderful foil for the goose liver’s richness. I’ve since discovered that similar fruit garnishes are very popular now, and I’m going to try making one like this for the foie gras that we brought home from this trip.

Next, Tom had lamb sweetbreads braised in a velvety brown sauce, and I had a leg of Bresse chicken cooked with cream and mushrooms, both very fine.
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Capable at last of going on to a light dessert, we both had dishes of delicious raspberries and strawberries in crème Chantilly. They were immensely refreshing after the richness of Le Nord’s cuisine.
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Every dish we had this evening was as near to perfection of its kind as I can imagine. The meal was a grandly memorable conclusion to our dining in Lyon.

 

Lest I forget: I should also mention that with each of these three dinners we drank remarkable wines, which you can read about in Tom’s blog.

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I really like baking breakfast breads. I make several kinds of rolls, muffins, scones, sweet breads, brioches . . . . I’ve even tried my hand at crumpets and bagels. Fortunately, I have a husband who’s an enthusiastic abettor of my efforts and consumer of the results. (He’s also the barista for the espressos that are our daily breakfast beverage.)

In baking I normally follow recipes closely, but when a fancy for cranberry-orange muffins struck me recently, I found many different ways of making them, in books and online, but none that truly appealed to me. So I took off mostly on my own and, happily, succeeded quite well.
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For the dry ingredients I took the proportions from Joy of Cooking’s basic buttermilk muffin recipe, using 2 cups cake flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon baking soda, 2 tablespoons sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt. That huge orange you see in the picture above gave me ⅓ cup of juice, in which I warmed ½ cup of dried cranberries, to soften them. I grated the orange’s peel and stirred the zest into a cup of buttermilk. Separately, I beat an egg and melted 2 tablespoons of butter.
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All the liquid ingredients went into the dried ones with only perfunctory mixing, to avoid activating the gluten in the flour, which toughens the muffin crumb. I had to add a little more flour because what I had at first was too wet: more like a batter than a dough.
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Then, when the texture looked right, I spooned the dough into a buttered 12-cup muffin pan. (BTW, I’ve found that brushing the cups with melted butter rather than rubbing them with solid butter gives more even coverage and better prevents sticking.)
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After 25 minutes in a 400º oven, the muffins were done. A few minutes’ rest in their cups, and out they came, to finish cooling on a rack.
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And very nice they were. Cranberry and orange are always a good flavor combination, and the balance here seemed about right. Next time I might try going a little heavier on the cranberries and simmering them longer in the orange juice, but that would be just to see if it made the muffins even better. Split while still warm, the first ones eagerly accepted slatherings of butter and made for a very pleasant small breakfast.
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The barista, normally not rapturous about cranberries, thought these muffins delicious.

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

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

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

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

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