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Archive for the ‘Main dishes’ Category

As I’ve had occasion to say here before, eels are not to everybody’s taste. The eeeww! factor is just too strong. That’s a pity, though, because eels can be delicious. They are among the meatiest of fish, with rich white flesh that comes easily off the bone. And, as long as the seller skins them for you, eels are easy to cook and good served in many different ways.

Here’s a trio of small eels from my Greenmarket. They’re only occasionally available – spring and fall, the fish man says, when they’re heading upstream to grow and downstream to mate at sea – so I often buy them to put in the freezer until we want them. Eels freeze well.


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In a previous post I wrote about making a very good recipe for eels Roman-style from the Roman volume of a regional Italian cookbook series. For this latest dish I went to the Venetian volume of the same series and followed its recipe for eels Venetian-style – essentially a braise in tomatoes. (Unusual for a recipe from this region: Tomato doesn’t feature prominently in Venetian cooking.)

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To start, I softened chopped garlic, onion, and parsley in olive oil, along with half a bay leaf. I added the eels, cut in pieces, and sautéed them for a few minutes just to imbue them with the seasonings. They don’t turn brown.
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Next was to raise the heat, add white wine, salt, and pepper, and cook until the wine evaporates. I have to admit that eels get really ugly as they begin to cook in liquid. I’ve learned not to let that distress me – they always come out fine in the end.
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When the wine was gone, I deglazed the pan, stirred in ¾ cup of chopped tomatoes, covered and cooked gently for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. All this simple cookery can be done in advance.
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That evening I made a batch of polenta to accompany the braised eels. Notice how the tomato sauce cleverly conceals any unsightliness of the eel pieces. Once we began tasting the combination, we didn’t mind what it looked like or where it came from – it was just very, very good. The slightly spicy, slightly acidic tomato sauce beautifully complemented the sweet flesh of the eels, and both combined happily with the velvety bed of polenta: fine simple dining.
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Tom adds a few words about the evening’s wine:
All these flavors went very well with a bottle of Etna bianco (100% Carricante) from Benanti, a Sicilian wine designed by nature to go with fish of all sorts. Even those who eeeww! at eel tend to aaahh! at Benanti.

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Roasted Quails

Quails are always a treat for me. The very first time I tasted them was in the very first dinner I had in Italy. It was in Rome, 1974, a neighborhood trattoria called La Capricciosa. The weekly menu was a mimeographed broadsheet listing 40 fish, fowl, and meat dishes. Bewildered by the abundance and amazingly low prices, I could hardly believe it when I saw “2 quaglie” – two quails – offered for 1300 lire, which then was about $2. I had to have them!

I can’t remember now how they were cooked – possibly just sauteed in butter with sage leaves – but they were beautifully brown, tender, and juicy. I took home the menu, and here it is. If you click on the image, you can read it clearly. The quail entry is down on the lower left.

 

 

For years after, every time we were in Rome, I had to go at least once to Capricciosa for quaglie. It was a sort of home away from home for us, and we loved everything about it, from its slightly run-down appearance and furnishings to the two musicians – an old violinist and a young guitarist – who made the rounds every evening. Then a fire closed the restaurant for a few years, and when it reopened it was a much fancier kind of place. And no more quails. Sigh.

These days, I occasionally treat myself to a pair of quails at home. Mostly when Tom is either away on a trip or out at a business dinner, because he finds the little birds difficult to cope with. A bushy moustache is a liability for hand-held nibbling of meat from tiny bones, which is pretty much the only practical way to eat anything on a quail other than the breast.

 

 

This latest pair are a little odd looking, having kept the stretched-out position into which they’d been frozen, rather than being plumped up like miniature chickens. I decided to roast them, using a recipe of my own from The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. Since the lean little birds need a protective layer of fat to keep them from drying out in the oven, I draped each one with a round of pancetta, which adds flavor as well as moistening.

 

 

In the absence of pancetta, blanched bacon or salt pork works for the covering, too. (BTW, notice how thin the string around the pancetta is? I’d run out of kitchen twine, so I used dental floss.)

While the oven preheated to 400°, I browned the quails in butter, along with a few sage leaves. The preliminary sauté is necessary for color, because of the short time the birds would be in the oven.

 

 

I transferred them to a baking dish, deglazed their sauté pan with white wine, and poured the juices over the quails. In the oven, they roasted for 25 minutes and were ready to eat.

 

 

They were wonderfully tasty and, as always, took me back in memory to Capricciosa’s quaglie.

I still have my journal notes on that first Roman dinner. Tom and I had two antipasti, two pastas, two main courses, a liter and a half of wine, two espressos, a grappa, and an amaro – all for 8,500 lire, or about $16. Today, with inflation, my $2 quails would translate to about $10 and the whole meal $65 – but just try to think what this meal would cost today in any restaurant that could serve it!

 

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Spareribs, Friuli Style

This dish began with a mistake. Here are some unprepossessing pieces of pork.

 

 

How did I get them? I asked the butcher for country-style spareribs, but I didn’t look closely at what he brought out from the back of the store. What I recalled as country ribs were like regular spareribs but with a much thicker layer of meat. When I got home I saw that I had two big odd-shaped slabs of pork with odd-shaped bones attached to them in odd places. (There are three here because I cut one in half.)

Subsequent research has taught me that country ribs come from the ribs right up against the animal’s shoulder, so they have more shoulder bone on them than rib bone. OK, but shouldn’t they still have been shaped like narrow rectangles – in effect, long bones with meat on them? Not these. One of them even looked like a misshapen loin chop. Clearly, some miscommunication had occurred.

Well, they were what they were, and I’d have to make do with them. But what should I do with them? They didn’t look as if they’d reward broiling or grilling, as normal spareribs do. Long, moist cooking seemed to be what they’d need.

Happily, I found just the thing in Michele Scicolone’s 1,000 Italian Recipes. Spuntature di Maiale alla Friulana, or Spareribs Friuli Style, is a brown braise – not the kind of preparation that immediately springs to mind when thinking of Italian cooking. Friuli is the region at the extreme northeast of Italy, bordering on Austria and Slovenia, as well as the Dolomites and the Adriatic. There are strong German and Slavic influences in its foodways.

Whatever its heritage, I felt sure I was going to like the recipe. Its first step is to flour and brown the ribs in olive oil.

 

 

When the ribs come out, the same oil is used to soften and brown chopped carrot and onion.

 

 

After that, the pan is deglazed with white wine and the ribs go back in, along with some good broth (Tom’s rich brew from mixed bones, meat scraps, and vegetable trimmings, which we always have in the freezer).

 

 

My ribs simmered along in the covered pot for the recipe’s 1½ hours and then needed another 15 minutes to be fully tender. The recipe didn’t say to strain or puree the gravy, and it had thickened nicely by itself so I didn’t mind the remaining soft little bits of carrot and onion.

 

 

Plain boiled Romano beans and mashed potatoes both liked that gravy just as much as the spareribs did. A very tasty, homey, comforting meal, and really quite simple to make.

 

 

Of course, it wasn’t exactly a summery dish, but never mind that. Though we ate it on one of our many ghastly hot, humid days, the level at which Tom keeps the air conditioning in our apartment is perfectly conducive to cold-weather fare. He claims it’s all for my own good: He needs it cool to boil up all that useful broth.

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This week I reconstructed an ancient French dish to match with a tasting of two wines made from the Cabernet franc grape: one from France’s Loire valley, the other an American from a winery on Long Island’s North Fork, where traditional Loire grapes do very well. Tom wanted to compare the wines to each other, alone and with dinner.

 

To keep the contest “in the family,” we wanted to have a main course from the Loire region’s cuisine. Recipe research revealed that most specialties of the Touraine region are white-wine dishes, in keeping with the many lovely white wines of that area, as well as the culinary resources from its ocean access and many rivers. But we needed a dish to showcase red wine.

Waverley Root’s classic book The Food of France speaks admiringly of coq au vin made with the Loire’s Chinon wine. (We had a Chinon for our experiment, but it was to drink, not to cook with.) Root goes on to describe a variant on coq au vin dating from medieval times, “today almost confined to the valley of the Loire.” Its name is a metonymy: sang de poulet aux oignons, “chicken blood with onions.”

The dish is similar to a typical coq au vin – cut-up chicken braised with mushrooms, onions, and bacon in a red wine sauce – except for the final step, which is to stir chicken blood into the sauce. Root hastens to say that, since the blood is mainly a binder for the sauce, the dish can be made just as successfully with conventional thickeners. So, with a little help on ingredient proportions from a recipe for poulet au sang that I found in Larousse Gastronomique, I made the dish for our wine tasting.

I wasn’t repulsed by the idea of blood. I’ve often enjoyed blood sausages. I’d also encountered it in the Neapolitan dessert sanguinaccio, which is a chocolate pudding made with pig’s blood. It too can be made with other thickeners, and having tasted it both ways I must say the version with blood was better: it had a lush, velvety mouthfeel. But since fresh chicken blood is not a common grocery item in my neighborhood, I was happy to be allowed to substitute cornstarch.

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So, on to the cooking. Rather than a whole chicken to be cut up, which is really too much meat for two, I’d taken the lazy path of buying skinless, boneless chicken thighs. I sauteed them in butter until they’d just firmed up, then removed them to a dish.
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In the same pan, with a little more butter, I sauteed button mushrooms, tiny onions, and pieces of thick-cut bacon until the vegetables were about half done.
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I transferred them to the dish with the chicken to wait while I started the sauce. I sprinkled flour onto the remaining melted butter, stirred it in for a minute or two, added a lot of red wine and a little broth, and deglazed the pan.
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Back went the solid ingredients, along with a bay leaf, parsley, thyme, salt, and pepper.
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It all simmered together, covered, until the chicken and onions were perfectly tender. At the end I thickened the sauce with cornstarch. I was also supposed to finish it with a flaming dose of brandy. I tried to, but my brandy perversely refused to ignite. Oh, well – I just gave it a stir and cooked a bit longer to burn off the alcohol.

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Dinner began with a tasting of the two wines by themselves, both of us taking notes on our impressions. Then we drank the wines with a small first course: baked zucchini boats stuffed with minced soppressata, onion, egg, and parmigiano. Not French, obviously, but tasty, and neither wine made any objection.
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Then came the main event, along with glasses of both wines: the bloodless wine-braised chicken, with small potatoes boiled in their jackets.
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It was a good coq au vin – and less fuss to prepare than some I’ve made from other recipes. I slightly regret not having been able to try it properly with chicken blood, but we enjoyed it enough just as it was that I expect I’ll be making it that way again.

The dish also served very well as a testing ground for the two Cabernet franc wines. If you’d like to know how that worked out, you can read about it on Tom’s blog, here.

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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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Despite the excessively hot weather we’re having, summer must be starting to wind down: The first local cauliflower is appearing in my Greenmarket. Unseasonable as that seems, I was glad to see it. There’s a dish I’ve been interested in trying for which I’d need a small cauliflower. This little bronzy-green head just filled the bill.
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The recipe I had in mind, from Madhur Jaffrey’s Vegetarian India, is called Cauliflower with Peas. Cauliflower has a strong affinity for Indian spices, as I know from enjoyable meals in Indian restaurants, and this recipe uses a good range of them – mustard seeds, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and asafetida. (Shameful confession here: In every Indian dish I’ve ever made that calls for a pinch of asafetida, I’ve skipped it. And so I did again this time. I haven’t missed it.)

My one-pound cauliflower produced a generous half pound of florets, which I matched with a third of a cup of green peas. The remaining ingredients, all classically Indian, are a fresh hot green chile, a small tomato, grated fresh ginger, and a little chopped cilantro. Indian cooking moves fast, so I had to slice the chile and chop the tomato before going any farther.
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Once all was ready I heated olive oil in a nonstick skillet and threw in the mustard seeds. As soon as they began to pop I added the chile slices and gave them a few stirs.
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Next in went the tomatoes, salt, turmeric, chili powder, coriander, and ginger, to be stir-fried for a few minutes.

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Finally, the cauliflower and peas, plus a little water.
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This was to simmer, covered, for 10 minutes or until the cauliflower was tender. Well, my cauliflower was not about to be rushed. I had to add three more doses of water and keep things simmering for almost 15 further minutes until the vegetable softened.  Early-season cauliflower are apparently pretty dense.

In an Indian meal the dish would have been ready to serve now, sprinkled with the chopped cilantro. But Jaffrey had offered a very different alternative in her recipe headnote, which I couldn’t resist trying. “I often mix it with cooked penne pasta and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese,” she said.

So I slid my covered skillet to the back of the stove, got some water boiling, and cooked up a batch of penne. Ecco! and namaste.
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It was a very pretty, very fragrant dish. It was also somewhat dry, though, with not enough moist sauce to be absorbed by and flavor the pasta. A big splash of olive oil along with the grated cheese on each dish helped, but essentially the two main components didn’t do anything for each other. The cauliflower itself was fine, with a strong kick from the serrano chile. The peas, tomato, and cilantro mostly blended into a spicy pulp that clung nicely to the florets. But the pasta just sat among the vegetables and appreciated the olive oil and Parmigiano.

Well, no harm done, but no kitchen magic in that combination, either. I’d be happy to make the cauliflower preparation again in the context of an Indian meal, where I think it will be excellent, but I won’t try to bridge the two-cultures gap this way again.

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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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