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I’m just back from a vacation including four days of exploring Malta. The Maltese islands – mere dots in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa – are truly fascinating. Cliffs, caves, and grottoes, Baroque palaces, medieval fortresses, 5,000-year-old megalithic temples, some the oldest stone structures in the world; and on top of all that, interesting, unusual food.

For example, here Tom and I are having a midmorning snack of pastizzi, a popular Maltese pastry resembling Neapolitan sfogliatelle but with savory fillings, usually fresh ricotta or (a relic of British rule?) mushy peas.

 

Not surprisingly in an island culture, fish of all kinds were abundant and delicious. The seafood we had at two restaurants, Palazzo Preca in Valletta and Tartarun in Marsaxlokk, was all exceptionally fresh and fine.

We tried both restaurants’ versions of aljotta, Malta’s signature fish soup. Often described (unfairly, in our opinion) as an adaptation of bouillabaisse, this is a rich, dense fish broth harboring small pieces of several kinds of fish, served with fresh lemon for squeezing and crusty bread for dunking.

 

 

Another appetizer was described on its menu as “local octopus, lemon confit, lardo, 10YO condimento, crispy quinoa, olive & mint.” (Condimento, I learned, is a prestigious kind of balsamic vinegar, this one being 10 years old.) The combination was lovely to look at and luscious to eat.

 

Our main courses of seafood were equally good:

An enormous mixed fry of various fishes, squid, shrimp, and octopus

 

Giant prawns sautéed in garlic, white wine, and tomato, served on a bed of rice

 

A sauté of mussels and four kinds of clams: razor, surf, vongole veraci, and praires

 

The best, freshest, sweetest, grilled squid Tom has eaten in a lifetime of consuming squid at every opportunity

 

We also explored non-seafood dishes, at both a lunch and a dinner at a Valletta restaurant called Nenu the Artisan Baker. It serves only traditional Maltese foods, with locally produced ingredients. Our lunch was two kinds of ftira, the Maltese equivalent of pizza. It consists of a fairly thick base of bread dough with various toppings, baked in a wood oven.

This one is called karmni s-sultana: potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, caper berries, olives, mint, and fennel seeds.

 

And this one is ta’ Nenu: sundried tomatoes, black olives, peppered Maltese goat cheese, onions, Maltese sausages, capers, and thyme.

 

These were hefty items, which we couldn’t possibly finish, much less go on to eat anything else for that lunch. The rest of the menu was so interesting, we decided to come back that evening for dinner. We quickly discovered that everything Nenu serves is hefty. Our appetizers would easily have done for main courses.

Here’s fwied tal-fenek: rabbit liver in a sauce of onions, garlic, prunes, anisette, and cream.

 

And zalzett malti: Maltese sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with peas.

 

Our affable waiter jokingly counseled us not to dip too much of the good crusty bread – the Maltese are rightly proud of their bread – in the sauces, because of the dishes yet to come. And right he was.

Here’s Tom’s kirxa, a curried tripe stew, which was served with pan-fried potatoes and garlic bread. It had several kinds of tripe, not just honeycomb, and a delicious but unusual set of curry spices that we couldn’t identify.

 

And here’s my fenek moqli, described as rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine, fried in olive oil, and served in its own juices. (I’d have called it braised, though I later learned that “fried” in Malta can mean either deep-fried or sauteed.) It came with roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables.

 

Our waiter delicately informed me that Maltese people eat rabbit with their fingers, because of the many small bones to be navigated around. I believe I became an honorary Maltese citizen that evening, because I ate my rabbit with my fingers too.

With that gargantuan repast, I’ll conclude this post. We had one more, very special, meal in Malta, which deserves a separate post of its own. See it next week!

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One of my most reliable first courses for a company dinner is an onion tart in the manner of Alsace. (I won’t call it Alsatian – that’s a breed of dog.) I’ve made it successfully for many years: It’s always delicious and guests always enjoy it. Originally I must have based it on a recipe from somewhere, but now it’s purely mine. I have it written out for five different sizes: 10-inch, 9-inch, 8-inch, and 6-inch round pans, plus 4-inch individual tartlets.

When I have extra pastry dough in the freezer, I sometimes make one just for Beloved Spouse and myself. Though we can’t finish it all at one sitting, it never stays around long enough to lose its charm. Most recently I made us an 8-inch version.

To start, I ran a pound’s worth of Spanish onions through the two-millimeter blade of my food processor. In a large sauté pan in which I’d melted a stick of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil, the onions cooked very gently for 20 minutes, until they were very soft but not at all browned – somewhat like the start of a French onion soup.

 

 

I sprinkled two teaspoons of flour over the onions, stirred them around, and cooked for another minute, then took the pan off the heat and let the onions cool a bit while I shaped the pastry shell. I like to use a pâte brisée for this tart, but any savory pastry will do. For company I usually make a raised decorative rim of pastry, but in this case I had just enough pre-made pastry for a plain shell.

 

 

For the filling I beat 2 jumbo eggs together in a bowl with 2/3 cup each of milk and heavy cream (for company it’s sometimes crème fraiche), plus salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg. I spread the onions and their residual butter in the pastry shell and poured the filling mixture over them.

 

 

The tarts – of any size – bake for 30 to 40 minutes in a 350° oven, until they’re puffed and lightly golden on top.

 

 

They can be served hot, warm, or at room temperature. For company dinners I usually bake the tart in advance and reheat it just a little as serving time approaches.

 

 

Simple as it is, this is a lovely tart – attractive in its presentation, appetizingly light on the tongue but rich, pure, and naturally sweet from both the custard and the onions. It’s delicate because there’s no bacon or cheese, as are used in many other onion tart recipes, to make the filling heavy. This is a dish that fits well into menus for all seasons and just about any US or western European cuisine. It loves a good white wine – not necessarily from Alsace, but one from there never hurts.

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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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Eggs à la tripe popped into my mind the other day. Why, I don’t know – I hadn’t made them in more than 20 years. Nor do I know why I hadn’t: We’d definitely liked them on the few occasions I did. Somehow they just disappeared from my repertoire. If you’re not familiar with the dish, don’t be put off by the name: There’s no actual tripe in it.

As I recalled it, oeufs à la tripe was a very simple French preparation: just hard-boiled eggs and softly sauteed onions in a sauce of béchamel with gruyère. But, for the details, I had to figure out which of my cookbooks I’d found the recipe in.

Larousse Gastronomique, La Bonne Cuisine de Madame Saint Ange, Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine, Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, and the Time-Life Good Cook egg volume were all ruled out because they don’t use gruyère in their oeufs. The Dione Lucas Book of French Cooking does call for cheese, but it’s a much more complex dish than the one I remembered. Clearly, the dish I remembered isn’t the primary or classic version. But it’s the one I wanted to have. On a hunch I checked Craig Claiborne’s New York Times Cookbook, and there I recognized my simple recipe. My research method may be haphazard, but its results are sound.

So merrily into the kitchen I went and set to work. My faithful knife man sliced half a very large Spanish onion for me, which I softened slowly in butter, covering the pan partway through so the onions wouldn’t brown and stiffen.
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While the onions cooked I sliced four jumbo eggs that I’d hard-boiled the previous day.
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Back at the cooking onions, I sprinkled on salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons of flour; stirred the flour in well; and gradually stirred in 1⅓ cups of milk – thus making the béchamel right on top of the onions. When the sauce thickened, I stirred in ⅓ cup of shredded gruyère and let that melt in.
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Finally I gently folded the sliced eggs into the sauce, trying hard to keep them from falling apart. Snatched tastes of that sauce, by the way, were even better than Tom or I had remembered. Might have been given an extra boost by the excellent cave-aged gruyère I had on hand that day.

At that point the eggs are ready to eat just as they are, over toast or rice, the recipe says. But it has an alternative serving suggestion: spread the mixture in a gratin dish, dot with a little more butter, and run it under the broiler to brown lightly. I liked that, because it could all be prepared well in advance and just finished at dinner time.
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That evening we had the eggs and their lovely sauce alongside grilled boudin noir sausages. They made a nice sloppy summer supper, and an excellent match to a lightly chilled red Burgundy.
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In every book of Martin Walker’s “Mystery of the French Countryside” series, police chief Bruno Courrèges finds time between pursuing criminals and preserving the peace in his Périgord village to make fabulous meals for his friends. When Bruno cooks, readers are right there in the kitchen with him, and for enthusiastic home cooks, the urge to step in and help out is almost irresistible.

A dinner Bruno makes in The Templars’ Last Secret did prove irresistible for Tom, our friend Hope, and me this week. Being all Bruno devotees, we were intrigued by this very unusual menu of his and decided to try making it for ourselves:

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice
Fish Soup
Blanquette de Veau with Rice
Salad and Cheese
Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

Of course we couldn’t reproduce that meal exactly: Much of what Bruno eats he grows or gathers for himself, or else buys from artisans at his village’s outdoor market. But we came as close as we could.

 

Venison Pâté with Haitian Epice

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Bruno wasn’t originally planning to have this course, but one of his guests, a young Haitian woman from the Ministry of Justice, brings him a jar of épice, her mother’s version of Haiti’s all-purpose spicy green sauce. Bruno opens a can of his homemade venison pâté so everyone can taste Amélie’s gift with it.

We couldn’t find a venison pâté, so we substituted a rabbit terrine and created our own épice with guidance from recipes on the Web. It was very easy to make. We simply pureed small amounts of green and red Bell peppers, two hot Serrano peppers, a tiny red onion, scallions, garlic cloves, lots of parsley, and a little basil in the food processor.

It was a lively sauce, tasting bright and intensely vegetal at first, with a sneaky zing of heat just as you were swallowing. It gave a nice lift to the lushness of the terrine. We could even have taken it a bit hotter – maybe try a Scotch bonnet pepper next time. With this appetizer Bruno served a sparkling Bergerac rosé wine. We drank an Alsace crémant, a regional transgression that nevertheless worked quite nicely.

 

Fish Soup

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One way to tell this must be a Périgord recipe is that it starts by cooking diced potatoes and crushed garlic in a casserole with duck fat. Fish soup made with duck fat! – totally new to us. Fortunately, I had duck fat in the refrigerator, so we were off to an authentic start. Continuing to do as Bruno did but guessing on quantities, most of which aren’t given in the story, we then added cubes of fresh cod, chopped canned tomatoes, stock that we’d made from shrimp shells, and a glass of white Bergerac. All that simmered along until the fish was done, when we adjusted the salt, poured in another glass of the wine, stirred in chopped parsley, and served.

It was unexpectedly rich and hearty for a thin-bodied soup made so simply from cod. We could just detect an undertone of the shrimp-shell stock’s flavor. The wine also made a definite contribution. We were lucky to have found that bottle of Bergerac. It’s uncommon here and was very distinctive: slightly herbal-spicy and only barely not sweet. But there was something more unusual in the soup’s flavor that we struggled to identify. Finally we remembered: the duck fat! It gave the soup an almost meaty essence. We three liked it as much as Bruno’s guests did. And we, like them, happily drank white Bergerac with it.

 

Blanquette de Veau

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Even at first reading, we were each struck by the oddity of serving a soup and a stew at the same meal. We were still dubious about it after deciding to make the full menu, but we put our trust in Bruno and went ahead.

To save some work on the cooking afternoon – and since stews are always better the second day – Hope undertook to prepare the blanquette herself on the preceding day and bring the finished dish to us. This entailed simmering two pounds of cut-up veal with aromatic vegetables, separately sauteeing a pound each of shallots and mushrooms in butter, thickening the veal cooking liquid, and stirring in the veal, shallots, mushrooms, and much heavy cream.

The blanquette was luscious, especially since Hope had used shiitake for half the mushrooms, instead of all small whites. The sauce had perversely not thickened quite as much as it should have, but it made a delicious dipping medium for crusty bread, as well as a sauce for the rice. With this course, Bruno served Pécharmant, a light red Bergerac wine made in Bordeaux-blend style. We had a modest Bordeaux wine of the same grape blend.

 

The Missing Salad and Cheese

We know Bruno intended to have salad and cheese at this meal. Before the guests arrive, he picks and washes salad greens from his garden and takes cheese out of his refrigerator. But that’s the last they’re heard of. As the dinner progresses, Bruno offers second helpings of the blanquette, and in the next paragraph he brings in the dessert. Well, even Homer nods. We had our salad and cheese, but to honor Bruno’s omission, I didn’t take a photo of them.

 

Wine-Poached Pears with Ice Cream

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Bruno poaches his pears in red wine to cover, with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and half a glass of his own vin de noix. We did the same except for the walnut liqueur, which is unattainable here. Also, Bruno seems to have left his pears whole, but we halved and cored ours first, because they’re so much easier to both cook (less wine, less time) and eat (no maneuvering around the cores) that way. We did, however, follow his manner of serving them, with a splash of sparkling wine and a scoop of excellent vanilla ice cream in each bowl. To make up for the absence of vin de noix, we awarded ourselves glasses of Bruno’s favorite dessert wine, Monbazillac.

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We three thoroughly enjoyed each part of this meal, as well as the making of it. But, for all our admiration of Bruno and his creator, we can’t commend the dinner as a whole. For us, the sequence of soup and stew didn’t work. The two dishes were too similar in color, texture, and general character for the palatal contrasts that are part of the pleasure of a truly great meal. Just too much of the same thing – especially with the richness of the duck fat, cream, and butter. We’d had greater success with the harmony of a previous Bruno feast we’d tried.

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Ever since local summer fruits began appearing in our greenmarkets, Someone in my household has become passionate about fruit desserts. He’s happy with any kind I make, as long as it’s fruity. (He claims he’s fighting scurvy.) To his delight, I’ve gone through strawberries, blueberries, and cherries, tried early nectarines and plums (too soon) and am now moving to peaches. I have a favorite greenmarket farm stand, which brings its produce up from southern New Jersey – a region as famous in our part of the world for peaches as it is for tomatoes.

This week there were four ripe peaches in my refrigerator needing to be used, and Someone was looking at me with hungry puppy eyes as we discussed upcoming days’ dinner plans. I could see where my responsibilities lay.

Out came those peaches, to be dipped in boiling water, skinned, and halved for a pie – of sorts.
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What I was about to make was a recipe in Joy of Cooking called simply Peach Pie, which I’d discovered several years ago and which was unlike any fruit pie I’d ever made or seen. At the time, I thought it was weird: To begin with, it wasn’t even an actual pie, because it had no top crust at all – so, more of a tart. The peaches weren’t to be sliced but left in halves. And there was a peculiar slurry to be poured around the fruit before baking, which sounded unattractive. But this was the ever-reliable Irma Rombauer’s recipe, so I gave it a try. To my surprise, it was terrific, and it has been a standard of mine ever since.

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This day, I made up a basic pastry dough for a one-crust pie, rested it briefly in the refrigerator, lined a medium-sized pie dish with it, and arranged my peach halves in it. I’d have been happier with one more peach to fill it more generously, but the four I had were just about enough.
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Over them I poured that slurry, made from 1 egg, 2 tablespoons of flour, ⅔ cup of granulated sugar, and 2 ounces of melted butter. It’s always thick and gummy, not at all dessert-looking, but I’ve learned to trust it.
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The pie baked for 15 minutes at 400°, then another 50 minutes at 300°. Out it came, looking much the way it had looked going in, except that the slurry had firmed up enough that the fruit appeared to have been set in a pool of slightly moist concrete.
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All this notwithstanding, the pie was delicious, as always. The peaches were soft and sweet, and the slurry had become a tender custard, lightly peach-flavored and far more attractive to the palate than to the eye. Rombauer prefers serving the pie warm, but we like it cool. If cool, she recommends whipped cream on top, but for home use we find it perfectly fine just plain.
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Someone was very happy that evening. And the next day at breakfast, too. Scurvy was fended off for another few days.

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We could have taken our Fourth of July picnic up to a table on our building’s roof garden, but it was still ghastly hot and humid that evening, and since the elevators don’t go up to the roof, we’d have had to shlep food, drink, and all their accouterments up a sweltering stairwell. So our foursome picnicked in the dining room in air-conditioned comfort.

Tom created a dandy little hors d’oeuvre for the occasion – a sort of micro-mini ballpark hot dog. He fried two slices of sandwich bread in butter, spread them with yellow mustard, cut them in one-inch squares, and laid a chunk of frankfurter on each. Half of them received a round of homemade bread-and-butter pickle under the frank, and the other half were topped with a piece of cornichon. Both were very tasty, but we all agreed the bread-and-butter-pickle version had the edge.

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The main event opened rather elegantly with Galatoire’s Crabmeat Maison. A few years ago I wrote a post about making this specialty of the famous New Orleans restaurant. It’s a luscious dish and always a favorite.
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After that came the more traditional picnic-y foods.

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My potato salad, made with the season’s first new potatoes, thinly sliced, a little red onion, olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and homemade mayonnaise.
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Tom’s macaroni salad, with bits of celery, bell pepper, red onion, and tomato; dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and the same mayonnaise.
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A broiled flank steak with Tom’s minimal barbecue sauce: his own seasoned ketchup, Worcestershire, and chipotle Cholula. It makes a light coating, penetrating the meat just enough to liven up its own flavor.
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There was also corn on the cob – white corn, first of the season, wonderfully fresh and sweet – chunked heirloom tomatoes, and a crusty baguette; all set out family style and attacked with enthusiasm and old-fashioned boardinghouse reach.
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To finish the meal we had a nectarine cake, which I make from a Joy of Cooking recipe called Plum Cake Cockayne. It’s a regular summer dessert of mine, sweet, easy, and good with any stone fruit. It was consumed with alacrity, even though everyone protested how full they already were. That’s the magic of fruit desserts.
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