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Archive for the ‘Main dishes’ Category

Summer hasn’t quite given up yet, and the principal summer vegetables are still going strong in my greenmarket. To take advantage of this late-season bounty, I turned to James Villas’ Country Cooking, a book that has two recipes for cooked vegetable dishes designed to be served at room temperature, which I’d been meaning to try for a long time.

One is for zucchini and bell peppers, the other for eggplant and onions. These are among our favorite vegetables, but except in very rare circumstances (e.g., zucchini a scapece, eggplant caviar) I only ever serve them hot. Since the book is organized around menus for entertaining, it’s easy to see how useful it is to have substantial vegetable dishes that can be entirely prepared in advance. Even without a party in prospect, I decided to make them both, in reduced quantities.
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Zucchini and Red Peppers Vinaigrette

This is a very lightly cooked dish, finished with a vinaigrette dressing. The ingredients are zucchini cut in sticks, peppers cut in strips, a little chopped onion, and a bit of garlic – staple ingredients of cooking all around the Mediterranean.
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They’re stir-cooked together in butter with salt, pepper, and thyme. The use of butter is a departure for me, as I – and most of the countries around the Med – typically use olive oil for these vegetables. I was curious to see what difference butter would make in the taste.
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As soon as the vegetables had barely softened I transferred them to a dish and, while they were still hot, tossed them with a vinaigrette of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and mustard. Then I covered the dish and refrigerated it for an hour before serving.
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At first taste, the zucchini and peppers seemed rather bland, as if they hadn’t been affected much by either the sautéeing or the dressing. They were quite crunchy, with possibly a faint butteriness detectable under the vinaigrette flavors. As dinner went on, I came to appreciate what a good foil the vegetables made for the braised squab they accompanied, and I wound up liking them very much. Leftovers were just as good the next day.
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Cold Eggplant and Onions

In contrast to the brief cooking time of the previous recipe, this one takes three hours – though there’s no active work in that time. The long cooking, according to Villas, is “what gives the dish its incredibly luscious texture.” It has just a few ingredients: the eggplant, lots of onion, much parsley, a little tomato, a tad of garlic.

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Once the eggplant is sliced, it’s to be salted and set in a colander for an hour to draw out some of the liquid. The recipe didn’t say to peel the eggplant, and mine had fairly tough skin. I wondered if that might cause a problem, but I left it on. (The recipe also didn’t say how to treat the tomatoes. Since there were only the two, I peeled and roughly chopped them.)

After rinsing and drying the eggplant slices, I spread half of them in an ovenproof dish and topped them with half the parsley, all the onion, and all the tomato. I sprinkled on minced garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and the rest of the parsley. The rest of the eggplant went on top, along with a modest coating of olive oil.
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Covered, the dish went into a 275° oven and baked undisturbed for two hours. At that point I was supposed to stir the mixture with a fork, cover it again, and return the pan to the oven for a third hour. I wasn’t sure how energetic a stirring was intended, and the top layer of eggplant looked so peaceful, I just nudged things around a little. Everything seemed well cooked already, but I gave it its last hour. Then it had to cool completely before being eaten.
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This was a very mild, mellow dish. “Incredibly luscious texture” isn’t quite the way I’d describe it, though it was pleasant enough. The eggplant (skin included) was ready to melt in the mouth. The dish had a nice onion sweetness, balanced by a slight acidity from the eggplant. A little extra salt helped bring up the flavors. As with the previous vegetable dish, this one proved to be an excellent foil for the dinner meat – in this case, grilled lamb chops.

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So, will I use these recipes for entertainment? I’m not sure. Years ago, when Beloved Spouse and I used to give large parties, they would have been fine. But we really don’t do that anymore. And in style, these dishes don’t fit easily into the kind of small-dinner-party menus we like to put together these days. I’m more likely to make them for ordinary home consumption.

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Duck Confit

There’s absolutely no need for me to make my own confit of duck. I can order it on the Web or, to avoid shipping charges, check various local specialty stores and almost always find it. Still, though making confit takes a long time, it’s quite easy, and I like to do it occasionally. So, when the urge struck recently, I acquired a pair of large fresh duck legs and turned to the confit recipe in Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef.
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For the first stage of the preparation, I sprinkled salt in the bottom of a plastic container and nestled the legs into it, after pulling off and saving all their loose fat. On top of the legs I sprinkled smashed garlic, sliced shallot, and sprigs of fresh thyme.
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I covered the container and let it sit in the refrigerator for two days. On the third day I first rendered out the pieces of duck fat, adding an older supply of fat that I’d had in the refrigerator from a previously roasted duck.
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Then I took my duck legs out of the refrigerator, brushed off the salt and seasonings, transferred them to a deep, heavy pot, and poured on the melted fat. There was plenty to cover the meat.
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The pot went into a 225° oven, where it simmered very gently for three hours. By then the legs had rendered a good deal more fat, had shrunk considerably, and were looking fairly scuzzy from the way the meat had pulled away from the bones. But they always do look that way, so I wasn’t distressed.
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Once cooled, the legs and their fat went back into the plastic container and into the refrigerator, where they remained contentedly for a month. This week, we were ready to eat them. I depart from Colicchio’s recipe in the matter of the final cooking. My way is to lift the legs out of the semi-solidified fat, leaving on enough of a coating to cushion them when it melts, and heat them through in a sauté pan.
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For appearance’s sake, I really should have finished them under the broiler to brown and crisp the skin. But I was feeling lazy, so we ate them just as they were, accompanied by a potato gallette and sautéed apple slices..
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The duck was delicious – moist, tender, richly flavorful. Even the soft skin was good – saltier than the meat but wickedly addictive. As for the apples, is there any fruit in the world that duck doesn’t love? My confit duck legs took to the apples like a . . . well, you know the saying. The crisp, firm potato cake made a good textural contrast to both the bird and the fruit. A fine meal for a cool, autumnal evening.

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Regular readers of this blog know what a fan I am of Andrea Camilleri’s series of mysteries featuring Sicilian detective inspector Salvo Montalbano – as much for his devotion to food as for his skill in solving crimes. In every volume our hero lustily consumes traditional Sicilian dishes made for him by his faithful housekeeper Adelina, his favorite restaurateur Enzo, and anyone else he can find to feed him. Except his girlfriend Livia, who is a terrible cook.

The writeups of those dishes are so mouth-watering that I can’t resist making them myself. I’ve already written about them here six times, mostly based on recipes in a cookbook called I segreti della tavola di Montalbano. But that book doesn’t have everything mentioned in the novels, so I’ve had to do a little detective work of my own and go farther afield to find recipes.

The newest Montalbano adventure is called According to Protocol, and it exists not in a printed book but only in the Italian television series available here on DVD. (Naturally I have the whole series, just as I have copies of all the novels.) In this episode, Montalbano is told about Da Filippo, a country restaurant said to make a particularly good version of the octopus dish Polpo alla Luciana. He drives off to find it one afternoon.
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After verifying that the eponymous Filippo makes his octopus dish with Gaeta olives and Pantelleria capers, Montalbano sits down at a table. Just then, two black-hooded gunmen burst in, one of them clearly about to kill our hero. The other one inexplicably knocks out the shooter, fires his gun twice into the walls, and drags his partner out. Filippo responds by going into hysterics, but Montalbano’s principal concern is for his lunch.
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Alas, the video doesn’t show the dish actually being served. I determined to make it anyway, and began looking at recipes. There were none for polpo alla Luciana in my Sicilian cookbooks but several in my Neapolitan ones. I asked a New York-based Sicilian restaurateur about the dish, and he reminded me that in much of the 19th century, Naples was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with much comestible, as well as cultural, interchange. He said they of course made that dish in Sicily.

So I proceeded. In six cookbooks I found essentially two versions of the dish: one with the octopus simply boiled, cooled, and dressed like a seafood salad, the other braised in oil, tomato, and other seasonings and served hot. None of the variations included the quintessentially Sicilian olive and caper combination so important to Montalbano, but it would be easy enough to add them. I decided to mostly follow the recipe in Anna Gosetti della Salda’s Le Ricette Regionali Italiane and take a few hints from Ada Boni’s Il Talismano della Felicità, both highly respected Italian culinary classics.


Both recipes were for the braised version of the dish. In my detective persona I deduced that it was more likely to be the one Montalbano had, because if Filippo’s was the seafood-salad type the octopus wasn’t likely to be burning.

That decided, off I went to the fish market for octopus.
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These two, each weighing three quarters of a pound, had already been tenderized by the store. That was a huge convenience, saving me from having to smack them hard for several minutes with a meat pounder, or fling them repeatedly into the (clean) kitchen sink, to soften the rubbery flesh.

Preparing the other components of the dish was quite easy.
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I put the octopi into a heavy pot into which they’d fit snugly. I salted, peppered, and topped them with ½ cup of olive oil, 3 chopped plum tomatoes, a handful of chopped fresh parsley, a whole garlic clove, a small dried hot red pepper, and – for Montalbano’s sake –16 Gaeta olives and 2 tablespoons of drained tiny capers.
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To prevent any of the cooking juices from escaping, I had to lay a piece of parchment over the pot and tie it down with string, before putting on the pot’s own lid.
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The pot then went onto my stove’s lowest burner at its lowest setting and stayed there undisturbed – cooking “insensibilmente” – for two hours.

Ada Boni sternly forbids taking the lid off the pot until the very moment of serving. When you finally do, she says, you’ll see “a kind of big, reddish chrysanthemum, utterly tender, floating in an exquisite broth that the munificent beast has generously provided.” (My translation.)
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When I lifted off the parchment, a lush, savory aroma wafted up. My submarine “chrysanthemums” had shrunk considerably in the course of creating their broth. They were indeed beautifully tender, with a soft, yielding texture a little like that of scallops. They had the characteristic octopus sweetness – rich but delicate, sort of halfway between crabmeat and sole or flounder.
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The broth wasn’t at all a tomato sauce: the chopped tomato remained as toothsome little nuggets, along with the olives and capers. The olive oil had blended with all the other flavors to create an unmistakably Mediterranean essence. This was a very, very good dish, a worthy companion to a fine white wine. No wonder Montalbano loved it!

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One of the stands at my greenmarket recently had some wild mushrooms of a kind I’d never seen before: wine caps. Big and fleshy, they looked a little like porcini, though with stems not so bulbous and caps with gills, not pores. Assured by the farmer that they tasted like porcini, too, Beloved Spouse and I couldn’t resist trying a few.

The first ones we bought we just sliced and sauteed in butter. They were very good, though milder in flavor and sweeter than porcini. We liked them enough to come back for more the following week.

 

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This time we wanted to try them in a more composed preparation: stuffed and broiled for an appetizer. I looked at several recipes, but they were all fairly elaborate, making the mushrooms themselves mainly cases for richly flavored fillings. We wanted something more delicate, so the wine caps’ own flavor would predominate.

Time to improvise. My faithful knife man chopped the mushroom stems, a small red onion, and a little fresh poblano pepper, while I grated some gruyère.
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We sauteed the chopped vegetables in olive oil until they were just softened . . .
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and mixed them in a bowl with most of the grated cheese. Since that light stuffing was already fully cooked, we needed to give the thick mushroom caps a head start on their own cooking. We brushed them with olive oil, broiled them for three minutes with the tops up, turned them and broiled another two minutes, tops down.

Then we took the pan out of the oven, filled the caps with the stuffing mixture, and sprinkled on more gruyère.
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A few more minutes under the broiler heated everything through, melted the veil of cheese, and lightly crisped the edges of the mushroom caps.
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They were lovely. The flavors had mingled pleasantly, leaving the wine caps themselves the main attraction. Another time – whether with these or another kind of mushroom – we might add a few breadcrumbs to that stuffing to give it a bit more body. We each ate a small cap and half of the large one, and we could easily have devoured twice as many.

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It started with an earworm – that is, a song that sings itself over and over in your head and you can’t make it stop. In the current case it was a chant: a phrase that legendary drummer Gene Krupa said he would constantly repeat to himself as he played, keeping time for the band.

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It’s a catchy phrase, “Lyonnaise potatoes and some pork chops.” Its rhythm of DAH dah dah …dah DAH dah … dah DAH dah DAH is kind of fun to say, which is why it sticks in my head. I thought maybe I could exorcise the earworm by making those two dishes for a dinner.

I hadn’t had lyonnaise potatoes in many years, and I needed reminding of how to make them. A little checking online revealed a lot of variety in recipes called by that name. I was taken aback by one from Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, which spoke scornfully of the “greasy mixture of unevenly browned potatoes and frizzled onions which usually passes for pommes lyonnaises.” My goodness, I thought, I guess I’d better go with “the correct recipe”!

It was simple enough to make. The only ingredients are potatoes, onions, butter, and salt. Plus, for me, the pork chops, of course.
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According to David’s recipe, I had to boil the potatoes in their jackets, peel and thinly slice them, salt them, and sauté them in butter until they were golden brown on both sides. My potatoes were very reluctant to color. By the time they had done so they almost as hard as poker chips, while in the long-ago dish I remembered, the potatoes had been tender and soft. Hmm.

As the potatoes were cooking I also sauteed sliced onions in butter in another pan. They also were to become light gold – and they also resisted doing so. I could just hear David tutting “unevenly browned!” and “frizzled!”
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But they were what they were, and more cooking wasn’t going to help them any. To finish the dish I had only to combine the contents of the two pans. I cooked both vegetables together for a few minutes, hoping the onions’ moisture might soften the potatoes a bit. They didn’t. They looked pretty together, though.
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And when served alongside my braised pork chops, they were tasty enough. Good in their own way, even if not at all the dish as I remembered it.
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Days afterward, I’d lost my earworm but kept thinking about those potatoes. I’d chosen fingerlings because they’re firm-fleshed and wouldn’t fall apart when sliced ¼” thin after cooking. Maybe they weren’t the right kind. Or maybe David had been overly insistent that hers was the only correct recipe: That kind of assertion is not uncommon among passionate cooks. I should try one of the other versions.

I turned to my cookbook collection, and in Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine I struck gold. The two recipes are as different as these two important mid-20th century cookbook authors: she a skilled amateur British home cook, he a famed professional French restaurateur.

For Oliver’s pommes de terre sautées à la lyonnaise, the potatoes are sliced raw, not boiled; sauteed in lard, not butter; half cooked covered, not browned. His onions – a lot of them – are minced, not sliced, and sauteed in butter until just soft, not browned.
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When the two vegetables are combined, Oliver’s are cooked again, covered, for 10 minutes or until the potatoes are fully done. That was the dish I remembered!
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This time the potatoes turned out meltingly tender, beautifully flavored from the onions, butter, and lard. They went just as well with a New York strip steak as they would have with pork chops. I don’t know which version is truly the “correct” one – or if there even is such a thing – but this one certainly pleased us. I wonder which Gene Krupa would have preferred!

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In the immortal words of Nellie Forbush, I’m as corny as Kansas in August! – only in my case it’s the vegetable I mean. It’s high corn season in my greenmarket now, and I’m reveling in it.

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One day recently a Washington Post article called “Easy, Delicious Recipes for Sweet Summer Corn” gave me some new ideas for using my favorite summer vegetable. The first one that caught my interest was a corn soufflé recipe. The article’s headnote praises the recipe for eliminating “the stumbling blocks in making a soufflé – beating separate egg whites, cooking a base sauce, the anxiety of it not rising.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? I didn’t see how a soufflé could rise without egg whites beaten into peaks, but maybe there was something to be learned here. I’d try it for a dinner for two. I gathered my ingredients – fresh corn, poblano pepper, gruyère cheese, eggs, half-and-half, salt, pepper, and chives. (Forgot to put the chives in the picture.) That seemed like a tasty combination; despite my doubts we were off to a good start.
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The recipe wanted all the ingredients to be pureed in a blender, but that quantity would have filled my cranky old blender so high that at first pulse it would’ve shot liquid out past the lid. I used my food processor instead.
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The recipe recommended baking the mixture in individual half- or one-cup ramekins or in a larger four-cup dish. For our dinner first courses I always bake individual soufflés in two-cup porcelain molds, so that’s what I used, even though this was a recipe for four persons.
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With no need for last-minute preparation and addition of fragile aerated egg whites, I was able to do all this hours in advance, putting the molds in the refrigerator until nearly dinner time. Then I baked them for about half an hour at 400°. They puffed up somewhat, but barely to the rims of the dishes. Nothing magic had happened.
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They began to deflate instantly, before I could even get the camera to them, and by the time they made it to the dinner table, they had sunken much further. We tasted them skeptically. Surprise: They were quite good. Beautifully corny, rich and dense, with a subtle blending of the poblano, chives, and cheese flavors. They had become a creamy, nubbly, slightly sweet, slightly spicy, very enjoyable summery whole. But they were not soufflés.

The whole point of a soufflé is lightness. What we had here were savory vegetable custards, much like crustless quiche. They were rich and very filling: Even though we liked them, neither of us could finish more than half our portion. No wonder the recipe called for small ramekins!

The newspaper’s recipe was lightly adapted from one in the book Heart and Soul in the Kitchen by Jacques Pepin, the celebrity chef, TV personality, and prolific cookbook author. I knew he had a reputation as a popularizer, but I’m still surprised that a professional cook – and a Frenchman to boot – would say something is a soufflé when it absolutely is not. He did, though: I checked his own recipe online, and that’s what he calls it.

I think that’s a disservice to people who don’t know what a soufflé really is, as well as to anyone who makes the recipe expecting it to produce real soufflés. However, at least the dish is a respectable one of its kind and a very pleasant use for high-summer corn.

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 A few coincidences set the stage for a very interesting dinner at home this week.

  • Beloved Spouse, having decided to write a post for his wine blog on a comparison between prosecco and champagne, brought home a representative bottle of each, first for a formal tasting, then to test with dinner foods.
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  • I had just read Fatal Pursuit, a detective novel by Martin Walker that has Perigord police chief/gastronome Bruno Courrèges making blinis of an unusual kind to serve with local caviar – a kind I wanted to try to make.
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  • We had a little jar of American transmontanus caviar in the refrigerator.

Everyone who reads the Bruno books knows that their lavish descriptions of the hero’s cooking are virtually narrative recipes. I’ve written about re-creating some of his dishes here. The blinis in this story are not the traditional Russian ones in several ways. Bruno doesn’t use any buckwheat flour; he adds chopped chives to his batter of flour, milk, egg yolk, and melted butter; and – because he doesn’t have time to raise the blinis with yeast – he beats the egg white into peaks and folds it in. I did the same.
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I dropped the batter by tablespoonsful into very hot butter in a frying pan. (Bruno remarks that this is one of the few places he doesn’t use duck fat!) They cooked quickly and neatly, making 20 fluffy 2-inch pancakes.
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After we’d had the formal tasting of the sparkling wines alone, we opened our caviar and sat down to find out how the champagne and prosecco would go with our dinner dishes. The blinis themselves were fine – light and delicate, an excellent vehicle for the caviar. I think the leftovers, which I froze, may be just as good with smoked salmon or sturgeon.
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We did the same tasting of the two wines along with the dinner’s main course, which was sauteed soft-shell crabs on toast and a summer vegetable mélange of okra, corn, and tomatoes (which I’ve also written about here).
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I’ll leave the detailed results of the wine-wine and wine-food comparisons for Tom’s blog post to report. What I’ll say is simply that Bruno’s blinis were a success, all the food was delicious, both the wines were delightful, and the entire evening sparkled like the wine.

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